How to Test the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura

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The Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura holds that the Bible, alone, is authoritative for Christian faith and practice. In this essay, I provide a simple method of testing the doctrine’s validity. I argue that two necessary conditions must be satisfied in order for the doctrine to be true. Before I introduce the first condition, however, it is necessary to address a common argument that many Protestant apologists advance in support of this doctrine.

A Case Against “Solum Consequat

A couple years ago, my daughters and I found an online recipe for a raspberry swirl pound cake. Wishing to surprise my wife, we decided to bake one for her. We failed miserably. The inedible monstrosity that emerged from the oven bore no resemblance whatsoever to the cake photographed on the recipe’s webpage. What went wrong? After all, I found a recipe that was profitable for instruction on how to bake the cake in order that I would be complete and thoroughly prepared for this good work. Here, of course, I am playing on a passage from II Timothy, with which Protestant apologists are surely familiar. In Chapter 3, verses 16-17, we read the following:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Let us set aside the fact that the Scriptures St. Paul was referring to were the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament had not yet existed. It would seem that if we were to accept the logic of those Protestants who cite this passage as a proof text for Sola Scriptura, then we must reject everything, including the New Testament, as superfluous.

Now, I know that it might be tempting to dismiss my analogy of the raspberry swirl pound cake offhand. At a superficial level, it might seem silly to compare one’s approach to the Bible with one’s approach to baking a cake. But consider the deeper similarity. As sufficient as the recipe was, I had very little experience with baking, and no one with the necessary experience was around to guide me so that I would be able to apply these instructions correctly. I learned the hard way that I was guilty of following “solum consequat” (or recipe alone), and the result was a culinary disaster. With respect to the Bible, profitable though it certainly is, there is no guarantee that the believer will interpret and apply its instructions in the correct manner.1

Let us set aside the cake analogy—however helpful comparisons like these may be in leading one to the truth explicated above—and turn, now, to the source that Protestants hold to be the sole infallible authority on Christian faith and practice. This, of course, is an even more effective way of refuting Sola Scriptura. For, if we discover that the Bible, itself, does not teach this doctrine, then we can safely discard it on account of it being a self-refuting doctrine. Let us examine, then, the first condition that must be met in order for Sola Scriptura to be true.

Condition # 1: There Must Be No Interpretive Authority Above the Individual

Scriptural doctrine inescapably has a human component. That is, it takes people to formulate, pronounce and comprehend the doctrines that derive from the Bible, which, of course, cannot directly speak for itself.2 The relevant question, then, is who is empowered to interpret the Bible authoritatively? Proponents of Sola Scriptura insist that individual believers, alone, have this authority. Does the Bible support this view?

Far from denying the existence of an entity above the individual capable of authoritatively interpreting Biblical truth, the Scriptures tell us that the very “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim 3:15) is the Church, not the individual believer or the Bible. The Church is a permanent body of believers against which even the gates of death will not prevail (Matt 16:18). This is so because the church is not merely a human institution, but a divine-human (or theanthropic) one. The bible presents the church not merely as an organization, but as an organism, in that it describes her as the very body of Christ. The Church, therefore, is not some biblical fossil, but a living, indestructible, and divine-human body that is guided “into all truth” (John 16:13).

Perhaps the real question, then, is not whether the Bible is sufficient, but whether I am sufficient to interpret it correctly. What Sola Scriptura really amounts to, it seems to me, is “ego solus” (or me alone). But it is necessary to approach the Scriptures with the humility of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), realizing, as the fathers have taught, that its mysteries are only revealed to the purified.

Condition # 2: There Must Be an “Expiration Date” for Unwritten Traditions

Before I discuss the second condition that Sola Scriptura must meet in order to be true, a brief history lesson is in order. As it is often said, the Bible did not fall from the sky at Pentecost. It is generally agreed that for the first three centuries of Christian history, there was no recognized New Testament canon. It was St. Athanasius who, in 367, first identified the twenty-seven books of the New Testament collectively as canonical in his Paschal letter.

This, alone, should cast doubt on the veracity of Sola Scriptura. For, if the bible held the exclusive role in our spiritual lives that proponents of Sola Scriptura ascribe to it, then would we not have expected the New Testament to have appeared centuries earlier so that the early Christians would not have been left spiritually destitute? Would we not have expected Christ, Himself, to have commanded His disciples to commit His teachings to writing? Of course, this overlooks the fact that most Christians for much of Christian history were illiterate. Therefore, Sola Scriptura begs another question: if God wished to communicate Truth through one medium, alone, why on earth would He choose one that was inaccessible to most people?

What Christ did command was to have his gospel preached to every creature (Mark 16:15). In other words, the truth was taught orally. Afterwards, we find St. Paul exhorting the Thessalonians to stand fast and hold the written and unwritten traditions (2 Thess 2:15). Some Protestants will argue: “Although that might be the case, only the written traditions remain authoritative today.” But remember: according to Sola Scriptura, all authoritative doctrines must be biblically derived. So, for this argument to have any merit, there must be biblical evidence of a sort of “expiration date” for the authority of the unwritten traditions. Is there, for instance, scripture that prophecies the creation of a new, written testament—for some reason centuries after the Ascension—that will displace all other traditions? I have yet to find any, myself.

Conclusion

To summarize, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura meets neither of the two necessary conditions that must be satisfied in order to be true. This is why non-Protestants often say that Sola Scriptura is a self-defeating doctrine. Scripture, itself, does not teach that it, alone, is authoritative for the faith and practice of the believer.

As I see it, therefore, the question each Christian should ask of himself is this: Do I have enough faith to entrust the Body of Christ, and not myself, with the teaching and preservation of the Truth? Am I willing, in other words, to renounce my own papacy and adopt the mind of the Church?

Dr. Amir Azarvan

11/26/2022

1 In short, Protestant apologists often conflate two issues: the special or exclusive role that the Bible plays in the Christian’s spiritual life, and the person or people who have the ability or authority to interpret it. They mistakenly believe that settling the former issue settles the latter; hence why the previously cited passage from II Timothy is imagined to be a proof text for Sola Scriptura.

2 The Bible is no more self-interpreting than the U.S. Constitution. Although the Constitution is the authoritative source of American law, consider the various and conflicting interpretations of this document – Does the 2nd Amendment give individuals the right to bear arms, or is that limited to militias? Does the 14th amendment really carry relevance for a same-sex couple’s right to legally marry? The list goes on ad nauseam. In other words, our otherwise authoritative constitution requires a human authority – i.e., the Supreme Court - to settle disputes over how to interpret it.

Comments
Benjamin12/9/2022 7:22 pm
Sola scriptura isn’t even in the scripture. BOOM! *mic drop* *walks off the stage*
Reader Ken12/7/2022 6:44 am
The question Dr. Azarvan failed to answer is whether Scripture is the highest authority for the institutional Church. A second problem with this beloved line of argument is that even the Ecumenical Councils were made up of individuals. Those individual priests and bishops had to interpret scripture as individuals before they could discuss and debate the correct interpretation to adopt as the Church. If the church does not cultivate the skills of Bible interpretation in the laity and the priesthood, then the Church cannot expect to have her bishops succeed at interpreting difficult doctrinal questions. If the reply is, the Church has the Holy Spirit, then why are there nearly a dozen national church traditions claiming apostolic succession who disagree on significant points of doctrine?
Fr. Steven Allen11/28/2022 12:41 am
Please say "Old Testament," not "Hebrew Scriptures."
John McGrew11/27/2022 12:50 am
Dr. Amir, There are some weak points in your argument. The letters to the Thessalonians are considered to be the earliest letters Paul wrote, while 2 Timothy is the last, unless Hebrews is accepted as Paul's, basically spanning the fifth decade. Peter wrote his letters later. Yet Peter includes Paul's writings as scripture, as writings. (2Pe 3:16) We also know from Eusibius that the canon was primarily set by which letters the church accepted and used from the earliest times. So the whole argument that the NT did not exist yet is fallacious. It isn't one book, and certainly many of the individual books existed and were used and accepted as scripture by the time 2 Timothy was written. If we accept that Paul was actually writing under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then we should be aware of the foreknowledge of God in this context. Much of the oral tradition Paul spoke of was written later, in the Gospels and Acts, for instance, Mark writing from Peter's sermons, and Luke inquiring diligently of those who had been present from the beginning. I recognize the importance of the oral apostolic tradition as preserved in the tradition of the church, I am not making an argument for sola scriptura. But I do stand for the primacy of scripture. Ideally the church is of one mind, but frequently error has to be rooted out before that can be the case. When I read the early fathers, from Justin Martyr to Athanasius I note that they quoted scripture, including the New Testament books, and not each other. And there are times when modern scholarship gives us a better understanding of the historical and cultural context. For instance, Edersheim's 'The Temple' has been a help in understanding St. John's writings, both the Gospel and the Revelation. A fourth or fifth century father would not have some of this information. So to end with a question, is the mind of the church a living thing which can integrate advances in understanding, or is it locked in place? Respectfully, from the perspective of a Lutheran convert to Orthodoxy, John McGrew
Matthew11/26/2022 8:34 pm
Dr. Arzavan writes very interesting material with great consistency, and this article is yet another example! A spelling question: should this not be "prophesied" with an 's' used? "Is there, for instance, scripture that prophecies the creation of a new, written testament—for some reason centuries after the Ascension—that will displace all other traditions?"
Bradley11/26/2022 7:12 pm
I have educated, borderline brilliant Protestant friends who cannot understand that the church cannot be biblical because the Bible is ecclesiological. By the standards of sola scriptura Protestants, no one was really Christian until the reformation. Trust the book but reject the authors, their lives, and their traditions (which are actually the traditions commanded by God in the OT, not man's traditions but good luck convincing them of that). This has lead to the rejection of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and that has lead to chaos not just in the church but in the world at large. The wake up call happens when a Protestant goes to to Jerusalem and finds out that the church over the tomb of Christ isn't Baptist, it's Orthodox. When they can't take communion and the service isn't a concert with a light show, you have to start wondering if you're wrong.
Reader John11/26/2022 5:23 pm
The monograph Sola Scriptura paved my way to Orthodoxy 25+ years ago, but this article's "recipe" analogy is a great way of deflating a Protestant proof-text that is habitually stretched past the breaking point.
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