The Protestant teaching that the Bible is the sole spiritual authority, sola scriptura, is nowhere to be found in the Bible.
Scripture, our Evangelical friends tell us, is the inerrant Word of God. Quite right, the Catholic replies; but how do you know this to be true?
It's not an easy question for Protestants, because, having jettisoned tradition and the Church, they have no objective authority for the claims they make for Scripture. There is no list of canonical books anywhere in the Bible, nor does any book (with the exception of St. John's Apocalypse) claim to be inspired. So, how does a "Bible Christian" know the Bible is the Word of God?
If he wants to avoid a train of thought that will lead him into the Catholic Church, he has just one way of responding: With circular arguments pointing to himself (or Luther or the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries or some other party not mentioned in the Bible) as an infallible authority telling him that it is so. Such arguments would have perplexed a first or second century Christian, most of whom never saw a Bible.
Christ founded a teaching Church. So far as we know, he himself never wrote a word (except on sand). Nor did he commission the Apostles to write anything. In due course, some Apostles (and non- Apostles) composed the twenty-seven books which comprise the New Testament. Most of these documents are addressed to specific problems that arose in the early Church, and none claim to present the whole of Christian revelation. It's doubtful that St. Paul even suspected that his short letter to Philemon begging pardon for a renegade slave would some day be read as Holy Scripture.
Who, then, decided that it was Scripture? The Catholic Church. And it took several centuries to do so. It was not until the Council of Carthage (397) and a subsequent decree by Pope Innocent I that Christendom had a fixed New Testament canon. Prior to that date, scores of spurious gospels and "apostolic" writings were floating around the Mediterranean basin: the Gospel of Thomas, the "Shepherd" of Hermas, St. Paul's Letter to the Laodiceans, and so forth. Moreover, some texts later judged to be inspired, such as the Letter to the Hebrews, were controverted. It was the Catholic Magisterium, guided by the Holy Spirit, which separated the wheat from the chaff.
But, according to Protestants' the Catholic Church was corrupt and idolatrous by the fourth century and so had lost whatever authority it originally had. On what basis, then, do they accept the canon of the New Testament? Luther and Calvin were both fuzzy on the subject. Luther dropped seven books from the Old Testament, the so-called Apocrypha in the Protestant Bible; his pretext for doing so was that orthodox Jews had done it at the synod of Jamnia around 90 A.D.; but that synod was explicitly anti-Christian, and so its decisions about Scripture make an odd benchmark for Christians.
The Protestant teaching that the Bible is the sole spiritual authority, sola scriptura, is nowhere to be found in the Bible. St. Paul wrote to Timothy that Scripture is "useful" (which is an understatement), but neither he nor anyone else in the early Church taught sola scriptura. And, in fact, nobody believed it until the Reformation. Newman called the idea that God would let fifteen hundred years pass before revealing that the Bible was the sole teaching authority for Christians an "intolerable paradox."
Newman also wrote: "It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself...." And, indeed, once they had set aside the teaching authority of the Church, the Reformers began to argue about key Scriptural passages. Luther and Zwingli, for example, disagreed vehemently about what Christ meant by the words, "This is my Body."
St. Augustine, usually Luther's guide and mentor, ought to have the last word about sola scriptura: "But for the authority of the Catholic Church, I would not believe the Gospel."
Johnston, George Sim. "Scripture Alone." Crisis 13, no. 9 (October 1995).
Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City. He graduated from Harvard with a B. A. in English literature and was an investment banker with Salomon Brothers in the seventies and early eighties. Since then he has been a free-lance writer, publishing with The Wall Street Journal, Harper's, Commentary, Harvard Business Review, National Catholic Register, World Catholic Report, and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. He teaches marriage preparation and CCD for the Archdiocese of New York and is the author of Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution.Copyright © 1995 Crisis
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