Sola Scriptura and Biblical Authority – an Overview

Martin Luther launched Protestantism in the 16th century on the basis of five “solas” – the Latin word meaning alone.  The Catholic perspective of the four “solas” related to salvation was discussed here and in subsequent posts.  The fifth “sola” is sola-Scriptura – “Scripture alone.”  How sola-Scriptura is defined can vary somewhat between different Protestant groups.  In general, it refers to a belief that Scripture is the only infallible authority for the Christian faith.  While other authorities may be accepted as important such as church councils, creeds or church leadership, none of these are viewed to be infallible, and Scripture is the final authority.  For other groups, it can mean that Scriptura is the only authority for the Christian faith. 

The Catholic perspective of Biblical authority is viewed more as a three-legged stool – Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium (the bishops in communion with the Pope who comprise the teaching authority of the Church).  We do indeed agree that Scripture in its original form is without error and infallible, authoritative, and truly God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16).  But we also view that there is an equally important role that Sacred Tradition and the authority of the Church play to ensure the Truth of the faith is correctly known and taught.

The doctrine of Sola-Scriptura is problematic to Catholics for many reasons.  For one, we don’t believe it’s Biblical.  I will devote a few posts to the most common passages from Scripture that Protestants use to promote Sola-Scriptura as valid, and why as Catholics we would reject those points.  I will also develop several posts regarding what the Bible actually does teach about authority, Sacred Tradition, apostolic succession and the Papacy, and how all of these are very much rooted in Scripture and Biblical.

Along with the fact that as Catholics we don’t believe that Scripture itself affirms or teaches a doctrine of sola-Scriptura, as Catholics we recognize that much of the division among Christians is a result of this practice.  This division begins almost instantaneously when Luther professes sola-Scriptura as truth.  We see while John Calvin agreed with Luther on many points, he also introduced doctrines like Limited Atonement and the Perseverance of the Saints that differ from the Gospel as Luther presented it. In 1529 Luther and another of the prominent early Protestant leaders, Ulrich Zwingli met at what is known as the Marburg Colloquy to try to reach agreement on doctrinal issues that had arisen.  While they reached agreement on most points, one major difference could not be resolved and that is the way they viewed the Eucharist – what exactly did Jesus mean when he said “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19).  Both sides presented their argument based on Sacred Scripture but neither could convince the other their view was the correct one.  So they left divided. 

If you’ve followed my blog these last months, you know there are many such disagreements within Protestantism, and not over minor points of the faith.  Within the ranks of those who profess “Scripture alone” as their sole rule of faith we find those who disgree on the doctrine of the Trinity, what it means to be “born again,” how a person is saved, whether or not a person can lose their salvation, whether Christ died for all people or only the “elect,” the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, the meaning and purpose of Baptism, how to baptize, what age to baptize, and what constitutes a “work.”  These are not minor points, but important and necessary doctrines at the heart of the Gospel and what it means to be saved.  Consider just one of these most important issues – whether or not a person can lose their salvation.  For those Christians who profess sola-Scriptura, the divide on this point is almost equal.  In general, many Baptists (including Southern Baptists), Presbyterians, and some Pentecostals believe the doctrine of Eternal Security, or Once-Saved, Always-Saved.  Groups like Lutherans, General Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Church of Christ, Amish, Mennonites, Methodists, and other Pentecostals like the Assembly of God generally do not accept a doctrine of Eternal Security.  Each side claims their position is the “Biblical” one, but one side is clearly wrong.

When confronted with this reality of doctrinal divide within Protestantism, often the defense is given that all “Bible-believing” Christians agree on the “essentials.”  Given the list above, I’ve never been sure how that position is defensible.  Are the above points not essential?  Sadly, what it often means is that those who disagree with “my” group’s position on these key points are not really Bible-believing Christians at all.  Of course, other groups have the same perspective about them. 

The evangelical site I often use provides this list of reasons there are so many differing interpretations between those who profess the Bible as their soul rule of faith:

  • Not everybody who claims to be Christian is really born again
  •  Lack of good training
  •  Not applying good hermeneutics (the science of interpreting Scripture)
  •  Ignorance of the ‘whole’ of Scripture
  •  Selfishness and pride
  •  Failure to mature
  •  Undue emphasis on tradition

While many of those items may be true, the question still remains when there is a conflict – who can determine which group is displaying selfishness and pride?  Or relying unduly on tradition?  Or lacking in training or maturity?  Or is not really even a Christian?  It is very easy for a group to point at another and say, these are the reasons why you don’t agree with my position.  And most likely, the other group will say the same about them….leaving nothing to be resolved and hundreds of different Christian denominations as a result.

The other reality is that no matter how much an individual may claim to base their beliefs on Scripture alone, nobody reads Scripture in a vacuum.  Our beliefs are inevitably formed by what our parents taught us a child, what we learned in religious education, the books we’ve read, the sermons we’ve heard, the Bible commentaries we’ve used for study, etc.  This is why someone who grew up in a “Bible-believing” Baptist tradition will have some very different fundamental beliefs than someone who grew up in a “Bible-believing” Lutheran tradition.  They are seeing things through the “lens” of their particular tradition.  Luther himself rejected many of the Bible commentaries that had been written down through the centuries by church leaders as being full of their own ideas, not what the Bible actually taught.  He then proceeded to write volumes of his own commentary, and presented it as aligning with the truth of Scripture.  Of course, Baptists or Calvinists today would find what they believe to be multiple non-Biblical errors in his commentary, just as he professed to find errors in the works of St. Jerome, or Thomas Aquinas, or Origen. 

So over the next many posts I will delve into what the Bible actually teaches about authority, and why the Catholic Church believes that within Scripture the Biblical model of authority presented aligns with Catholic teaching.  And for such questions as those above, we were not left without a point of resolution for any conflict, nor were we left without shepherds of the faith. 

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