As a professing Christian, what one believes to be correct in respect to both doctrine and practice are of great significance, and among various groups of professing Christians there is a wide swath of diversity in both these areas. One of the main reasons for these ongoing differences is that various groups approach the issue of determining what constitutes true doctrine and right practice from vastly different paradigms. These paradigms are often under-emphasized in inter-traditional dialogue, but in fact provide the basis for all the major doctrinal and practical differences these various groups experience. Among the paradigms employed by various groups, ‘sola scriptura’ and ‘catholicity’ are two of the biggest and most significant ideas used to determine doctrine and practice.
In this paper I hope to examine both what sola scriptura is, and why it is necessary, as well as why the paradigm of ‘catholicity’ is insufficient for determining belief and practice, as well as address common objections raised against sola scriptura from those promoting ‘catholicity’.
‘Sola scriptura’ signifies a paradigm employed for determining what constitutes correct Christian doctrine and practice. Among those who claim this paradigm, there is great diversity, not only in doctrine and practice, but also in how the paradigm is understood. It has become popular to attempt to blend sola scriptura, in varying degrees, with catholicity. In fact, when groups claiming to hold sola scriptura do this, they end up abandoning the paradigm for a modified version of catholicity which can no longer truly be considered sola scriptura.
Sola scriptura is then the idea that each and every point of Christian doctrine and practice must be demonstrated to be true and valid from the holy scriptures, in order to be held as dogma. Private opinions and theories lay outside of the scope of this; what is at hand, is what is dogmatically confessed to be true in doctrine, and valid in practice. Such dogma typically determines a church’s discipline, setting a standard for who is allowed to be included in the church, and what doctrinal and practical deviations should result in discipline. Sola scriptura then determines what doctrines and practices will be dogmatically held, and required of men to be included in the church, by limiting those requirements to strictly what can be demonstrated valid from the scriptures themselves.
The value of this paradigm is great; it provides a means by which to arrive at a true and certain knowledge of what doctrines are true, and what practices are correct. This certainty stands in sharp contrast to mere theories and plausibilities, which, although they may be interesting, do not actually provide a believer with a knowledge of what is true. By seeing a given doctrine proven to be true from the scriptures, a believer knows that said doctrine is true, with a certainty which catholicity cannot provide, as we shall examine later.
To hold sola scriptura, then, is to set up the scriptures as an indemonstrable first principle, from which a sure knowledge of doctrine and practice is built by way of demonstration from that first principle, and to then limit one’s dogma to that same body of knowledge obtained from the scriptures.
Sola scriptura can be demonstrated to be valid in two distinct but related ways. Firstly, it can be shown to be of logical necessity. Secondly, it can be shown to be required by the scriptures themselves.
Sola scriptura is logically required by the fact that in the search for what constitutes valid doctrine and legitimate Christian practice, certainty is required. For a true Christian, these things must matter greatly; the issues at stake constitute what true Christianity really is. Who is God? What is the gospel? How are Christians to live? These central points of the faith are too important to base upon anything less than sure knowledge. Merely basing one’s ideas off of theories and plausibilities leaves a Christian in a place no different than the men of the world, where one’s opinions are founded not upon knowledge, but merely upon the opinions of other men. A Christian ought to desire something more than mere opinion on topics so crucial; a true Christian must base their faith and practice off knowledge of the truth.
It stands to simple reason, then, that in order to obtain a knowledge of the truth on these matters, a trustworthy source must be found. God is this source. A true Christian trusts God, because He knows God, and knows that God is trustworthy. But God does not ordinarily instruct men directly; we do not reasonably expect to be taught the faith by a voice from heaven. The place that we can go, however, to be instructed by God, is the holy scriptures, inspired by His Spirit. Because these are authored by God, albeit through His Spirit and men as instruments, they are trustworthy, as He is. To trust God requires that we trust what He says; to acknowledge that God Who is perfect and never errs, and is infallible, requires us to likewise acknowledge that what He says to us is inerrant and infallible.
This understanding of the scriptures is crucial. Scripture can serve as our indemonstrable first principle, from which we learn other things by way of demonstration, because it is authored by God, and in it we are taught by God. The scriptures are referred to in themselves as “living oracles” received from God, authored by Him, written for our instruction.
The scriptures are an indemonstrable first principle because they are taken on faith; this faith is God-given. To be a Christian naturally entails possessing such faith, and no one is a Christian who lacks it. A true Christian, upon reading the 66 books of the Bible, knows that they are what they profess to be, God-inspired, infallible revelation from God Himself. This God-given faith and knowledge is the only demonstration a believer needs that the scriptures are true.
Every system, it should be noted, requires an indemonstrable first principle. Every argument can be traced back to these first principles, which are presupposed rather than proven by argumentation. For a Christian in search of true doctrine and legitimate practice of the faith, the scriptures are the necessary rule to presuppose, since they are known to be trustworthy, infallible, and inerrant. Thus the logical necessity of making the holy scriptures our first principle in matters of Christian doctrine and practice is demonstrated.
Secondly, sola scriptura is required by the scriptures themselves. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NKJV) reads “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” This occurs in a series of brief commands at the end of the book, and in context is reasonably understood as its own self-contained command. This command requires us to employ sola scriptura, as it has already been laid out above.
Testing, after all, requires a standard by which to test. The command is to hold fast to what is “good”. In doctrine, this must surely be what is true; in practice, what is legitimate in the sight of God. It is then true doctrine and legitimate Christian practice that scripture commands us to “hold fast” to. How do we know what that is? By testing everything, so as to discover that which is good. ‘Everything’ includes all but whatever the standard itself is by which we are to test it. What then is the standard?
That is answered by our first point. Logically, we must have a certain knowledge of what is true in doctrine and legitimate in practice to know what is good, to which we are to hold fast. The command after all does not command us to hold what might be good, or what is likely good, but what is good- which as we have said, is what is known to be true in doctrine and known to be legitimate in practice, rather than merely supposed. Our standard to test things by then must be God’s own revelation, using what He has revealed to us and made known to us to test all other things. Ordinarily, this is going to be the scriptures alone, since we do not ordinarily have other direct revelation from God, such as prophecy, to base our understanding off of.
We are required then by this commandment to test every doctrine and practice that is proposed to us as being true and valid, and determine whether they are indeed what they are claimed to be. This testing can reasonably ordinarily be by no other standard than the holy scriptures, our indemonstrable first principle in such matters. To suppose that any human source could be in viewed as a standard here, such as a church, does not work, since we are commanded to test everything- this must reasonably include churches and authorities.
The command of 1 Thessalonians 5:21, then, requires Christians to employ sola scriptura, as using scripture as our touchstone for doctrine is the only ordinary way for us to know what is actually true and good, and therefore, what we are to hold fast to. We are not told to hold fast to whatever we are told; whatever we like; whatever authorities may bid us to believe; we are to hold fast specifically to that which, upon having been tested by the indemonstrable first principle of the holy scriptures, is found to be good, by means of having been demonstrated from that standard to be true and legitimate. Those things not demonstrated to be true or legitimate, are not known to be good; and thus, the believer is under to obligation to hold fast to them.
We are not told, we should note, to simply reject that which is shown false, as being disproved by the scriptures, but rather are to hold fast only to that which positively is proven by the scriptures. This leaves those things which can be neither proven nor disproven, but remain plausible theories, outside the scope of that which we are instructed to hold fast to, since they are not known to be good.
Sola scriptura then is necessary in order to arrive at an accurate knowledge of the the truth respecting both Christian doctrine and practice. On the basis of reason alone, we can understand that an indemonstrable first principle is required, upon which a greater knowledge can be built by way of demonstration. That the said principle must be scripture can be understood from the fact that we want the source of our understanding to be trustworthy, and thus we are dependant in such matters on the infallible revelation of God, which, ordinarily, we only have in the scriptures. Likewise, since the scriptures command us to test all things and hold fast that which is good, we must test proposed doctrines and practices by an infallible standard, and require demonstration of them from our indemonstrable first principle, in order to know if they are true, and valid, and therefore good, and incumbent upon us to hold fast to. Obedience to that command will ordinarily have us base our doctrine and practice of the Christian religion wholly on the scriptures, carefully holding fast to all that is demonstrated to be valid from them, and not making anything into a point of dogma which is not demonstrated from the same.
Catholicity as a paradigm is the idea that doctrine and practice should be determined by the what “the church” has historically believed. Catholicity as a paradigm for determining doctrine and practice is to say that rather than basing dogma solely on scripture, the main determinative factor should be “the church”. This extends to all areas of doctrine and practice, as well as the interpretation of scripture itself.
This view has several variations, but nearly all involve some sort of authoritative church structure, often in some way imbued with infallibility, whether that be found in a pope, or in ecumenical councils, or in a broad notion of tradition in general.
Consensus is usually valued in this paradigm, with the more people agreeing with a given doctrine giving it greater weight. This view tends to be highly authoritarian, and depends on councils, fathers, and popes to determine what should be held as true doctrine, and what should be practiced.
Catholicity fails as a paradigm for a number of reasons. Firstly, the very concept requires some extra-biblical authority as a starting point. Depending on which tradition you talk to, what that authority is varies greatly. The problem with all of them is that they are fallible human authorities, and their endorsement of a given doctrine or practice cannot reasonably be taken as assurance that it is true. Truth, after all, is not determined by human authorities. It is not a matter of power to make something true; a doctrine is true irrespective of what authorities think of it. For instance, truths about God are not made true by someone declaring them to be so. God is eternal, and unchanging, and what is true of Him is not dependant on any man. Men may have various sorts of authority, yet authority in itself is not something that can make the doctrinal matters like those spoken of in scripture true. Human authority cannot reasonably be presupposed to give any sure knowledge of truth.
Many of those who hold catholicity as a paradigm, however, believe that God has guided some human authority, such that their declarations are infallible, and thus another source of divine revelation. Yet such high claims are not reasonably a starting point or first principle. Such claims must be demonstrated to be true- and scripture validates no such claims.
Secondly we must note the great confusion and nebulousness there is surrounding what “the church” is, which is supposed to be one’s guide to truth. Which church is “the church”? The Oriental Orthodox, the Coptics, the Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics all present themselves as “the church”, as do some protestant groups and traditions. To arbitrarily pick one of these disagreeing groups as the authoritative standard to determine true doctrine and practice lacks justification. They all claim to be “the church”, and many of them claim to hold their doctrines and practices by means of an unchanging and unaltered tradition handed down from the apostles. This is obviously false in at least all cases but one of those who make such claims, since what they regard as their authoritative and unchanged traditions disagree with one another.
There is a great deal of arbitrariness in defining what the church is when used this way, which serves to demonstrate that the entire paradigm lacks validity. Usually appeals are made to “the church has historically held doctrine ‘x’; therefore it should be accepted on the basis of catholicity”. Yet the reasoning used is usually circular; all those professing Christians who have disagreed with that given doctrine are discounted as being outside the bounds of the church because of their rejection of ‘x’. Thus, the supposed consensus that ostensibly shows the validity of ‘x’ is fraudulent. It is a rigged vote, in which all ‘yay’ votes are counted, and all ‘nay’ votes are discounted as invalid, all in order to proclaim that the ‘yay’s have prevailed by a unanimous consensus.
We can use something like Chalcedonian christology as a test case, which, as per the council of Chalcedon, teaches that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures. Many Christians will appeal to this as the “catholic” (universal) teaching of “the church”. Yet, the whole church has not agreed to that articulation. The Oriental Orthodox disagreed with the council of Ephesus, the third “ecumencial council”, and so were not included in the decision of Chalcedon. The Homoian trinitarians of the Gothic, Gepid, and Vandal churches who did not accept the first council of Constantinople were not represented, and would not have affirmed the decision. Likewise, the Coptic churches, that of Egypt and others in Africa, rejected the decision of the council of Chalcedon. Yet the council is regarded as the fourth “ecumenical” council, as though it represents all the church, and its decision is regarded as “catholic” by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and many Protestants.
The only way that such a contentious doctrine, which lacked the agreement of so many churches, even of the Coptic churches represented at the council, could be considered “catholic” is by discounting the opinions of everyone who disagreed with the decision. The ‘nay’ votes didn’t count! Why? Because they came from heretics. And how were they known to be heretics? Because they disagreed with the council. And so we see the complete circularity of the reasoning, and the arbitrariness with which a doctrine is held to be “catholic”.
If one were to, instead of holding catholicity in a completely arbitrary way, use it to endorse only those doctrines which have truly found universal assent, they will be left with nearly no doctrines whatsoever. In such a case, they will have no choice but to revert back to scripture, and embrace it as their guide to understanding which doctrines are true and which practices are valid, and will effectively end up embracing sola scriptura.
We see then that catholicity is a dishonest endorsement of a given doctrine on the basis of history, human authority, and tradition, which lacks coherence and ultimately just serves as a tool for giving credence to extra-biblical doctrines. Why, after all, need anyone appeal to catholicity, if a given doctrine could be demonstrated to be true from the scriptures, either being shown to be explicit in it, or a necessary deduction from it? If it can be proven from the scriptures, let them do so, and let men embrace it on the testimony of God rather than man. Or, if it cannot be demonstrated from the scriptures, then it cannot be regarded as anything more than a human opinion or theory; perhaps a very plausible theory, and perhaps one that was widely held, yet neither of these even so much as make a doctrine truly catholic, let alone show that it is true. To choose catholicity is to choose to arbitrarily endorse some human tradition or another as true, while having no rational basis for doing so.
Thirdly, we must examine, is catholicity, as a paradigm, catholic? Has “the church” always believed that tradition, alongside scripture, and perhaps the decisions of popes or councils, is enough to prove that a given doctrine is true, apart from demonstration from the scriptures?
The answer is most certainly ‘no’. That tradition changes is obvious to any student of church history- the doctrine of the Trinity, and the massive changes it underwent, serves as an excellent example. All one need do is to read the ante-nicene fathers on the matter, and then compare that to later theologians like Augustine and the John of Damascus. Perhaps an easier demonstration is simply that all four communions that depend on an authoritative and unchanging tradition- namely, the Orthodox, the Orientals, the Coptics, and the Roman Catholics- disagree with one another. It is obvious from this that at least most of them have altered their traditions in a serious enough way to warrant breaking communion with one another over the differences.
But if we examine the details of Roman Catholic catholicity, or Eastern Orthodox catholicity, we see even more clearly that their versions of ‘catholicity’ are not truly universal. The Romans depend on a papal magisterium, which quite obviously has not always been believed to be all the the Romans make it out to be. Peter founded several churches, including that of Antioch; any claim based on his succession, therefore, must seem to therefore make at least one rival Pope in Antioch, and who knows how many others. A brief examination of early church history makes it exceedingly clear there was no belief, and certainly no universal, or catholic, belief in a universal bishop in Rome who had infallible authority. Had there been such a belief, the Quartodecimans would surely have submitted to the successor of Peter; the Donatists must surely have done the same. And from what did the need for ecumencial councils arise, if an infallible Pope presided over the church in Rome? The Nicene controversy would have ended in a day, once the Pope had spoken; the various christological controversies of the following century too must have passed quickly, once the Pope settled the disputes. Yet they did not, as any student of church history ought to know. The trinitarian debates raged for centuries; the debates over christology give an excellent example of the church not regarding the Pope as infallible. They did not simply accept his tome, but carefully examined it, a point which would be superfluous had he been infallible. And surely the churches of the East, and the Coptics, could not have been ignorant of the Pope’s infallibility, had it been a really catholic doctrine, yet they did not hesitate to disagree with the bishop of Rome.
Likewise, the supposed infallibility of ecumenical councils, the lynchpin of Eastern Orthodox catholicity, can be demonstrated to have not been a catholic or universal notion. Surely the church of the Orient and the Coptic churches would not have been ignorant of so important a catholic and apostolic doctrine and tradition as the infallibility of ecumenical councils, had this been a catholic belief, and a tradition preserved from the apostles. Yet they disagreed with “ecumenical” councils. Nicea is perhaps the greatest example; so far was it from ending the disputes, it did more to fan the flames of controversy than to settle it. Controversy continued for a long time, and a great many bishops had no issue openly disagreeing with it; not just Arians and Eunomians, but also Homoiousians and Homoians. Had the church had an established and agreed doctrine that such a council was infallible, the debates that followed Nicea would have been rendered unthinkable.
But the rejection of Nicea did not end with many bishops openly disagreeing with it; for in 359, a second “ecumencial council” was called, including perhaps over a thousand bishops, over three times as many as Nicea; which council officially acknowledged that the council of Nicea made a well-intended error in introducing the word ‘homoousias’ into the creed, and sought to correct the error of a prior ecumencial council, by banning all speculation on the Son’s ‘ousia’, and laid out that the church should confess the faith in scriptural terminology, and not exceed it. This council, the joint councils of Arminium and Seleucia, were “ecumenical” until emperor Theodosius decided to again change the empire’s doctrine back to that of Nicea over twenty years later in 381. In that year, Theodosius called another council, later regarded officially as the “second ecumenical council” in replacement of that of Arminium-Seleucia, the first council of Constantinople.
Such changes back and forth, and especially the willingness of much of the church to officially recognise that the first ecumencial council had made an unwise decision, which needed revision, is proof enough that there was no universal doctrine or tradition in the fourth century that encumenical councils were inspired by God and infallible. It is a later invention, used to solidify the official doctrines enforced by the Roman Empire, which conveniently overlooks the otherwise ecumenical councils that did not agree with their doctrine, as well as the dissent of large portions of the church from the seven that they choose to endorse as ecumenical.
The paradigm of ‘catholicity’, then, as the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox hold it, is shown to not itself be catholic- the paradigm is self-defeating, as it itself can be shown to not have been universally held in the early church, and we have no historical reason to think it was a tradition handed down from the apostles. The history of the early church simply does not fit at all with the idea that the church held such a paradigm. Catholicity, then, is not catholic. To hold it faithfully and consistently would require one to reject the paradigm itself.
Now I want to briefly address the oddity of Protestant catholicity, which is also self-defeating. Among Protestants, who at least in name hold sola scriptura, ‘catholicity’ has often been a major part of their identity. For some this was true from the time of the Reformation onward, such as the Lutherans and the Anglicans, who retained much from Roman Catholicism for that very reason. Others, who were initially more radical, like the Presbyterians and other reformed groups, also adopted catholicity, not to retain much from Roman Catholicism, but as a vehicle to enforce their own contrived ‘orthodoxy’ within their ranks. Since these two groups treat catholicity differently, I will address them distinctly.
The Lutherans and Anglicans simply do not hold sola scriptura in truth. For them, sola scriptura, practically speaking, was as excuse for holding certain key Protestant doctrines in contradistinction to the Roman Catholics. Aside from that they wished to remain as they were, and extra-biblical doctrinal and practical traditions could always find a home there. To the degree that they embraced tradition as catholicity, they may be lumped in with the Eastern orthodox and Catholics already mentioned; their holding to the ecumencial councils and other such things can be viewed as self-defeating or inconsistent with their Protestantism. If not inconsistent with their Protestantism, then they would fall victim to the same dilemma as mentioned above, that catholicity simply is not catholic. Their version of catholicity is a unique amalgamation of Protestant doctrines and ideas and tradition, which ultimately fails to be faithful to the principle of sola scriptura which ostensibly justifies their not being Roman Catholic in the first place. Sola scriptura is then held as a card to excuse them from the authority of Roman Catholicism, while at the same time traditional doctrines are retained in the name of catholicity, even when such doctrines and practices go beyond scripture and thus violate their founding principle.
The Reformed tradition, on the other hand, was more radical and obviously felt itself more free to reject traditional ideas in favor of how they understood scripture. The key problem with this is that they never fully shook the paradigm of catholicity; they went on to apply the same principle to their own founders, in a way their founders did not apply to those before them. Knox and Calvin show a much greater willingness to ‘innovate’ on the basis of what they believed scripture said than later generations of Reformed would allow within their ranks. Confessionalism led to the enshrinement of certain doctrinal “achievements”, which were in turn held up as a new catholicity which could not be departed from. Tradition remains an important element, only instead of following church fathers, they follow Reformers. Sola scriptura, at first held more consistently by their founders, is now abandoned in the name of preserving the traditional doctrines and practices of their founders, even when scriptural proof for a doctrine or practice is non-existent.
Such problems show that the Reformed confessions have simply replaced the role of the Roman magisterium, and sola scriptura exists not as a functional principle but as an apology for why older traditions are not embraced. This too is self-defeating. Sola scriptura is confessed, as per their doctrinal standards, yet it is insisted that scripture must be read in accordance with ‘catholicity’- meaning, their doctrinal standards devised in the Reformation and post-reformation eras. The inconsistency of the insistence on the importance of historical Reformed traditions, accompanied by the almost complete neglect of patristic and medieval traditions, is a glaring one, which seems to have sparked something of a trend in reformed circles that people, upon realising this inconsistency, look to the older Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as more consistent alternatives.
Their inconsistencies, however, have already been pointed out. The solution to such inconsistency with sola scriptura is not to abandon that paradigm because it is poorly applied in many circles, but rather to actually work to faithfully apply that principle, using scripture as an indemonstrable first principle from which to arrive at a true and certain knowledge of Christian doctrine and practice.
There are, however, a few common objections the proponents of catholicity will often raise against such a view of sola scriptura. Among these are the insistence that “the church” cannot err in its official doctrine because the Lord promised that the gates of hell would not overcome the church. Secondly, it is argued that Paul’s command the keep his traditions, whether handed down orally or in writing, requires us to go beyond scripture to tradition. Thirdly, it is argued that sola scriptura must be a flawed paradigm itself, because its application in Protestantism has led to seemingly ever-increasing and massive division among Protestants. These can be answered well.
The reference to the gates of hell is found in Matthew 16:18 “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (NKJV). Many very powerful sounding arguments have been built on this, proclaiming that since the Lord Himself promised that the gates of hell would never overcome His church, therefore, it is impossible that the church has erred to severely. Depending on which variation is in view, and depending on which tradition the argument is coming from, this can range from proclaiming that therefore the church must be infallible, as guided by the Spirit, or else at least that the official doctrine of the church on very important matters such as those dealt with at “ecumenical councils” cannot have erred, or else surely the gates of hell would have indeed overcome.
All these arguments are toppled by the simple observation that a gate is a defensive structure, not an offensive device. For the gates of hell to not prevail does not mean, ‘all of Satan’s attacks against the church will fail’, but that the church will not fail in its offensive mission against the satanic forces of this world. Certainly, it will not fail. That does not, however, preclude the possibility of the church having some dark times. The church’s final victory is not a promise of a rosy path along the way, and does not in any way indicate that churches will not err.
Next we come to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (NKJV). This verse is used to justify looking to ancient apostolic tradition as an authoritative source of doctrine and practice. However, the verse does not mention a longstanding tradition passed down via a succession of bishops; it speaks simply of those who had heard the apostles speak being commanded to hold to what they had heard with their own ears, along with what was written down.
What was written we have in the scriptures; what was said verbally, we simply do not have. Remnants of that may be preserved in ecclesiastical tradition, but the command is not to keep traditions handed down by the church, but to keep what had been given to them by the apostles themselves. This command still holds good; were we to have the ability to receive oral instruction by the apostles today, surely we should regard those traditions as authoritative. But we do not have such oral instruction, nor has any generation since the apostles fell asleep. We simply have the traditions handed down in the scriptures (most of which, like head covering for women while praying, are ignored anyway).
The danger in conflating oral instruction by the apostles in person with ecclesiastical tradition is great. Those who heard from the apostles had a valuable source of instruction. They could know that what they received from the ambassadors of Christ was good, and so should be held fast to. But those traditions handed down by churches, we have no assurance are good. Perhaps some are apostolic- but which ones? How can we know, rather than base such things on mere guesses? We can know from the scriptures, knowing what the apostles taught by what we see confirmed in them. Anything beyond that is lost in a see of human invention. We don’t have traditions delivered to us orally by the apostles, therefore obviously there is nothing incumbent on us from that part of the command.
To try to keep that command by keeping anything other than traditions received orally from the apostles as such is to feign obedience. What we receive orally from the apostles, we must keep- which in generations after the apostles, is nothing. Any ecclesiastical tradition claiming to be from the apostles, we lack a knowledge of, unless it is confirmed by scripture. We do not know it to be good, do not know it to be apostolic, unless confirmed by scripture, and therefore need not hold fast to extra-biblical supposed apostolic traditions.
Next we come to the examine the objection against sola scriptura, that if the paradigm worked, it would not have led to such great division among protestantism. The perpetual fracturing of Protestant institutions is argued to show that sola scriptura only sounds good in theory, not practice, because scripture will not be understood apart from some sort of catholicity. Everyone interpreting it for themselves leads to division, it is argued. “Catholic” tradition is required, they say, in order to understand the scriptures rightly and have unity over what they mean.
This arguments falls apart as soon as it is observed, as noted earlier, that the bulk of Protestantism has never applied sola scriptura consistently. Had they, perhaps there would be a far greater deal of unity; but we do not know. At any rate, the major divisions in Protestantism tend to come not so much from people truly interpreting scripture wrongly, as it does from people making extra-biblical theories and practices into dogma.
We must remember that at the end of the day, most Protestant churches and traditions hold sola scriptura not as an actual paradigm by which they determine their beliefs regarding doctrine and practice, but as an excuse for breaking with other more traditional views.
The famous break between Luther and Zwingli will serve to illustrate this case well; they met, in hopes of gaining unity between the two wings of the magisterial reformation. There were thirteen points they were supposed to unite on; they could only come to agreement on twelve. The one they could not agree on pertains to communion; Zwingli believed the Lord’s supper is a mere memorial of Christ’s passion, and that the elements are merely bread and wine, and no more. Luther insisted on his unique theory of consubstantiation, that the real body and blood of the Lord were present in or under the elements of bread and wine. Both of these theories go well beyond scripture; the disagreement cannot be ascribed to the paradigm of sola scriptura, but Luther and Zwingli’s failure to apply it. Nowhere does scripture say that the Lord’s supper remains merely bread and wine; nowhere does scripture explain Luther’s philosophical conjecture. Both Reformers betrayed what was supposed to be their founding principle in theory, sola scriptura, to divide protestantism over rival theories.
So it has been through much of Protestantism’s history. Churches and institutions divide very often, not over simply not being able to agree on what scripture means, as though it is deficient or unclear, but because some party or another insists that some point of doctrine or practice which cannot be demonstrated from the holy scriptures must be made a point of dogma, and another disagrees. Protestantism is full of extra-biblical theories, conjectures, speculations, and traditions being paraded around by different groups as the doctrines of God. That is a real problem- sola scriptura is not.
In conclusion, it is noteworthy that in addition to all the personal value sola scriptura holds for the believer, as being a means for them to secure a knowledge of the truth, it also has great value to the church at large, as providing the best opportunity for Christian unity. So long as extra-biblical conjecture is made into dogma, the churches will remain divided. Nearly all the great splits the church has experienced throughout its history have been over unfaithfulness to scripture, either in what scripture teaches being denied, or in churches going beyond scripture. Theories in themselves are not always problematic. But making theories and speculation into dogma is, and there is little possibility that doing so will ever do anything but cause more division. On the other hand, if all parties were willing to set aside their extra-biblical theories, traditions, and conjectures, and unite around the things scripture does actually teach, and what can actually be proven from its pages, the church might experience a unity unlike anything it has enjoyed since the ante-nicene era.
Copyright Andrew Davis 2018.