Tag Archives: Bible Alone

Thoughts On Sola Scriptura (aka The Bible Alone)

Sola Scriptura (Bible alone) is a founding principle of the Protestant/Evangelical churches I was once involved in. On the positive side, I learned a lot of Bible from many wonderful, Christian people. Obviously, the Bible is a necessary part of the Christian life and we need to study it. However, I eventually learned that the Bible alone wasn’t intended to provide us with the fullness of the Christian faith. There was something missing. The following are just a few of the thoughts that resulted from my journey away from Evangelicalism/Protestantism and back to the fullness of the Faith in the Catholic Church.

If Sola Scriptura is true, it would seem that:

  • Jesus would have said to His disciples, “Write everything down and distribute those writings to every nation” instead of, “Go and teach all nations.” (Matt 28:19)
  • Paul would have said, “Faith comes by reading the Word of God” instead of, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” (Rom 10:17)
  • Paul would have told Timothy, “Scripture alone is sufficient for perfecting you as a man of God.” However, Paul’s message to Timothy was, “All scripture is profitable…” (2Tim 3:16-17)  As an analogy, water is profitable and necessary, but not sufficient for sustaining life. Food, shelter, clothing etc. are also profitable and necessary. Christians need the Church and her Sacraments as much as they need Scripture.
  • There would be a verse somewhere in the Bible that clearly indicates that the Bible alone is sufficient. Instead, there are verses extolling the necessity and profitability of Scripture, but not that the Bible alone is sufficient.
  • We wouldn’t need preachers or teachers or evangelists. We would only need to put the Bible on display and let people read it. There would be no need to explain anything in the Bible, as its contents would be self explanatory.
  • We wouldn’t need Martin Luther or anyone else to teach, argue or debate the sufficiency of the Bible alone. The sufficiency would be self evident from the Bible alone. We would need no other teaching authorities.
  • Jesus would have said to his disciples, “He who reads your writings reads me” instead of, “He who hears you hears me.” (Luke 10:16)
  • Paul would have said to the Thessalonians, “Stand fast and hold only to what I write down.” What he told them was, “Stand fast and hold to the traditions I taught you, either by letter or by word of mouth.” (2Thess 2:15)
  • The Apostles would have written something to the effect of, “We’re all going to die off eventually and we’ll have no successors. Therefore, our writings will be your guide.” But they did choose successors. (Acts 1:21-26)
  • We wouldn’t need a Church to tell us infallibly that the Book of Revelation belongs in the Bible while The Gospel of Thomas does not. The proper contents of the Bible would be self evident. The successors of the Apostles eventually decided (among other things) that the book of Revelation belongs in the Bible but the Gospel of Thomas does not. If the Catholic Church is fallible, then the Bible isn’t infallible. (The effect isn’t greater than its cause.)
  • Protestants wouldn’t need Luther or any other teaching authority to show them that the apocryphal books do not belong in the Bible. Such exclusion or inclusion of any books would be self evident. (If Luther is a fallible man, how can the canon of the Protestant Bible be trusted as infallible? Again, the effect isn’t greater than its cause).
  • Jesus would have told His disciples to resolve their disputes by appealing to Scripture. Instead, He told them to “take it to the Church” as their final authority. (Matt 18:17)
  • There would be a verse in the Bible stating that all Christian truth must be stated in the Bible. The Bible makes no such claim for itself. The Bible points us back to the authoritative Church.
  • The Ethiopian eunuch would not have needed Philip to interpret the scriptures for him. (Acts 8:27-30)
  • The Bible would be understandable by believers that read it. Instead, it is often difficult to understand. There are even verses warning the reader about the difficulties and dangers of biblical interpretation. (2Peter 3:16)  Different people reach different conclusions while claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit.
  • Paul would have called the Bible rather than the Church “The pillar and ground of the truth.” (1Tim 3:15)
  • Jesus would have said, “The Bible is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by the Bible.” But, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” The Church is the very Body of Christ. We come to the Father by way of the Church (i.e. Christ Himself, the Living Word of God).

These thoughts are not the only reasons I returned to Catholicism, but they help illustrate the importance of a both/and approach to Bible and Church authority. My error was in thinking that I needed to choose either the Bible or the Church as an authority (an error I was ironically taught by Protestant teaching authorities, not by the Bible alone). In reality, the Bible and the Church are both part of the same authority given by Christ.  The Holy Spirit weaves them together to provide believers with “all things” Christ wants us to have.

Study, But Lean Not On Your Own Understanding

I found the article Why Catholicism Is Preferable to Protestantism to be quite thought provoking. It addressed a question that I personally had wrestled with for some time in my spiritual journey. The question is one of authority. Since I am the one that ultimately decides which church to align myself with, does that not make me the ultimate authority? Aren’t Catholics and Protestants both doing the “same thing” in that regard? How can either of us claim to have different, ultimate authorities (i.e. Church vs. Bible) if the final authority is ultimately the individual?

The answer lies within the following statement from the article:

“How is the Catholic’s judgment different from a Protestant’s, if at all? The difference lies in the conclusion, or finishing point, of the inquiry they make. Whereas the Protestant can ultimately submit only to his own judgment, which he knows to be fallible, the Catholic can confidently render total assent to the proclamations of the visible Church that Christ established and guides, submitting his judgments to its judgments as to Christ’s.”

Another way to approach the issue is to ask, “What is being let go of?” When we let go of something, we relinquish control over it. We relax our grip. We hand over control to someone or something other than self. We submit. There, then, is the essence of the “finishing point” mentioned in the article.

Both Protestant and Catholic must use reason to come to a final conclusion. “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2Tim 2:15)  God expects us to use our brains. On the other hand, we can go too far with our use of reason and trust in it more than we trust in God. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” (Prov 3:5)

There comes a point where one must “let go of” one’s own understanding in order to trust and obey God. That is the finishing point for the Catholic. It is not the total absence of reason, but the reasonable response to trust in God. One cannot “trust” without “letting go.” Hence, the Catholic sees that the way to trust and obey Christ is to trust and obey the Church given by Christ. The Catholic ultimately “let’s go of” the trust in personal understanding where doctrine is concerned.

A perfect example can be found in John chapter 6. None of Jesus’ followers understood why they must eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in order to have eternal life. However, some stayed with Jesus and others stopped following Him at that point. Those who stayed did so, not because they understood Jesus, but because they trusted Jesus. Peter said it best: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter did not scrutinize Christ’s words against scripture and render his own, personal conclusion. He submitted to Christ. Those that left remained constrained by their inability to make sense of Christ’s words. They tried to “figure it out” and, ultimately, clung to their personal authority.

The Protestant must continue to cling to personal understanding of Scripture in order to insure that the truth is being “rightly divided.” Personal interpretation of Scripture must rule the day in order to guard against heresies. If I, as a Protestant, disagree with the direction my church is headed, I can switch to a different denomination more closely aligned with my personal interpretation of Scripture. Even though I may “search the scriptures to see if these things are so,” I still make my decision based upon my personal interpretations of those scriptures. Ultimately, there is never a “letting go of” my own understanding where doctrine is concerned. Either the doctrine aligns with my personal interpretation, or, I find a new church.

The Catholic ultimately makes a decision to give up personal authority in favor of Christ’s authority. The Catholic submits to Christ by submitting to the teachings of Christ’s Church (even when those teachings are “hard sayings” not easily understood through diligent study). This is not blind faith void of reason. It is a reasonable trust in the authority of Jesus.

The Protestant must ultimately cling to personal, fallible authority in order to claim submission to the authority of the Bible (an authority the Bible does not claim for itself). Unlike the Catholic, there is not a “letting go of” personal authority for the Protestant. The personal authority must remain in order to empower any potential “protest.” This dynamic may serve democracy well, but the Church is not, and never has been, a democracy. For the Church, it results in continuous fragmentation as people do what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25).

Where Did The Authority Go?

There are two ideas that I encounter over and over again in my conversations with non-Catholic Christians.  The first idea is that, for whatever reason, the Catholic Church does not possess apostolic authority.  The second is that Christians should only believe what can be explicitly found in scripture, because the Bible is the final authority.  I would like to reflect on these two ideas that I myself once held.

If apostolic authority died with the last Apostle, then no one has apostolic authority.  No Catholic, no Protestant, no Evangelical or Fundamentalist has apostolic authority.  Hence, no one since the Apostles has had the authority to tell anyone what to believe or what not to believe about the Bible, including its contents.

The early Christians had to believe what the Apostles told them.  But, the Apostles died.  So, what happened to their authority?  How could they continue to “tell” Christians what to believe?  How would the Holy Spirit guide and unify the Church without the Apostles?  Here are a few options:  1) Apostolic authority was transferred to the successors of the Apostles.  2) Apostolic authority was transferred to the Bible.  3) A combination of the two.

If authority was transferred only to the Apostles’ successors, then there would be little point in writing things down (like the Gospels, for example).  So there must be at least some apostolic authority contained within the writings of the Apostles.  After all, if the Apostle has authority, his writings will, too.

If authority was transferred only to the writings of the Apostles, then it would make sense to include that information in the writings.  For example, the apostles should have written down something that says, “When we are all dead, our authority will reside only in these written documents” or, “Only believe what is explicitly written in this future collection of writings and nothing else,” or “The Bible is now your final authority.”  The problem is that the Bible makes no claim that it is the final authority for the Christian upon the death of the last apostle or at any other point in time.  Although the Bible claims to be “profitable” it does not claim to have “the final say” or to be entirely “sufficient.”  Plus, the Church went 400 years without an officially assembled Bible.

Non-Catholic Christians (with few exceptions) have largely rejected the idea that the authority of the Apostles was transferred to successors.  Therefore, unlike the early Christians, there are no men that these Christians are ultimately accountable to.  They are essentially free to discern the Bible on their own and believe what they wish.  If they disagree with one church, they can find a different one.  While many of them claim submission to their respective church leadership, there is really no reason for them to do so in matters of faith and morals.  Why submit to leadership when each Christian can decide what to believe?  “Leadership” therefore becomes limited to the logistical and administrative needs of each church.  In this scenario, apostolic authority on faith and morals (limited now to only the Bible) takes a back seat to the beliefs of individual Christians.  Christians now tend to submit to leadership that aligns with what they believe.  This is the opposite of the early Church where individual Christians were expected to line up with the unified teaching of the Apostles.

Catholics, believing that the Apostles transferred their Christ-given authority to successors, are expected to behave as the early Christians did.  They are expected to fall in line with God’s written Word as well as the teachings delivered by men with apostolic authority.  In this scenario, apostolic authority is still in the driver’s seat.  Individual Christians are expected to remain in the back seat and submit to the teachings of Church leadership, just like when the apostles were alive.  In other words, the apostles “live on” in their successors who are able to clarify their writings and apply them to the present day life of the Church.  This has continued for 2000 years.

The authentic Catholic Christian, like the early Christian does not search for a church that aligns with his or her individual conclusions about the Bible.  Rather, like the early Christians, the authentic Catholic is obedient to Christ through obedience to Christ’s Church (which includes the Bible).  The Bible is not the “container” which holds all things Christian.  The Church is the “container” which holds all things Christian, and the Bible is inside that container (aka the Deposit of Faith).  The Bible points the Christian back to the Church as the “pillar and ground of the truth.” (1Tim 3:15)  The Bible never places itself over and above the Church’s authority, or demands that the Christian reject the Church and submit only to the authority of Bible.  The Bible and the Church together are a coordinated, apostolic authority.  It is not either/or, it is both/and.

The Catholic Church must possess apostolic authority in order to have assembled and affirmed the contents of the Bible 400 years after the Apostles died.  The Catholic Church declared which writings were inspired and which were not.  It makes no sense to reject the apostolic authority of the Catholic Church and then claim that the Bible contains apostolic authority for the Christian.  It is inconsistent to say, “I only believe what is in the Bible, but I don’t believe that the Church that assembled that Bible has apostolic authority.”  That is akin to saying, “I believe the Gospel of John, but I don’t believe John had apostolic authority.”

Assembling the Bible was as important as writing the Bible.  Without the Church’s apostolic authority, we could all pick and choose whether or not we think the book of James or the Gospel of Thomas belongs in the New Testament.  Why not rely only on the words spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel?  Why not accept Peter’s writings but reject Paul’s?  When you dump the Catholic Church’s apostolic authority, everything else is up for grabs, including the Table of Contents of your Bible.

Apostolic authority was promised by Christ to the Church.  It is not transient, it is permanent.  It is not something that can be “lost” and then “picked up” by another church, for Jesus established only one Church and promised to remain with that Church.  Bad people in the Church cannot cause apostolic authority to “go away.”  It is the authority of Christ, given by Christ.  Jesus never said that the authority given to the Apostles would someday go away or be confined to a book.  The Apostles never taught that, either.  They appointed new men to fill vacant offices (Acts 1:20-26).

If the Catholic Church does not have apostolic authority, then no one has apostolic authority.  That authority died with the Apostles, and the Bible doesn’t have it, either.  It’s just a collection of old writings that may or may not have been inspired by God, put together by a false religion that calls itself Christian.  If that’s the case, it really doesn’t make sense to believe what is in the Bible.  On the other hand, if the Catholic Church does have apostolic authority, then it is reasonable to believe the things that are explicitly stated in the Bible as well as all of the other official teachings of the Catholic Church.  It’s all apostolic teaching.

Ultimately, for the Catholic, it comes down to trusting Christ to hold it all together in spite of our imperfections.  “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” (2Cor 4:7)  Jesus, I trust in thee.

A Personal Encounter With Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone)

Not long after my return to Catholicism, a Protestant friend approached me with a question.  He and the other members of his church board were in the process of interviewing pastoral candidates, and there was an issue regarding the divorce and remarriage of one of the candidates.  My friend, knowing I had some theological training, asked me if I could provide any insight into what Scripture teaches about such matters.  There was apparently some confusion among the board members about how to decide the matter according to the Bible.

My friend’s dilemma is a perfect example of why the Bible alone is not sufficient in determining matters of faith and morals.  Eventually, a person has to call the shot.  Ultimately, it is not the Bible we go by, but someone’s interpretation of the Bible.  I don’t know exactly what my friend’s church decided to do.  I gently informed him that the Catholic Church had long ago decided such matters.  Any interpretation I would provide needed to be in agreement with Catholic authority.  In other words, who am I to interpret the Bible for him and his church?  I am not a pope or a bishop with apostolic authority.

Another issue arises when people who oppose the Catholic Church insist that their interpretation of the Bible proves how wrong or bad Catholicism is.  What they have done is listened to preachers and read books that taught them those interpretations.  In some cases, they have listened to former Catholic priests and nuns that say how bad Catholicism is.  Who are those preachers, authors, former nuns and priests?  They are not popes or bishops with apostolic authority.  Why should their interpretation of Scripture be taken seriously?  Even anti-Catholics have their own “popes” and “magisterium” although they won’t admit it.

When the Apostle Philip encountered the Ethiopian sitting in his chariot reading Scripture, Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  “How can I,” answered the Ethiopian, “unless some man teach me?”  Philip then used his apostolic authority to interpret the Scriptures and teach the man about Jesus.  The Ethiopian was subsequently baptized as a Christian. (Acts 8:27-40)  How can we understand the Bible unless we are taught what it means?  How can we receive consistently correct interpretation unless the teacher is teaching according to the apostolic authority given by Christ through the Holy Spirit “who will lead us into all truth?” (Jn 16:13)

Anyone can open a Bible, find some truth and draw conclusions from it.  That’s the danger.  Peter wrote that no prophecy of the Scripture is of individual interpretation and that some things in Scripture are hard to understand.  People can twist Scripture to their own destruction. (2Peter 1:20, 3:16)  That’s why Jesus gave us the Church to call the shots.  Once one abandons the Catholic interpretation, anything goes (and does go).

The real question for the Christian isn’t, “Do you follow the Bible?”  The real question is, “Whose interpretation of the Bible do you follow and why?”  Where did your teacher(s) get the authority to tell you what the Bible means?  Surely, a God that can preserve the Scriptures can also preserve a living, teaching authority for the Scriptures.  That’s what the Catholic Church is.  That’s where the authority has resided for 2000 years.