Sola-Scriptura and the Availability of Scripture

In “The Gospel According to Rome” (an anti-Catholic work), James McCarthy writes:

“Confident of the Spirit’s teaching ministry, biblical Christianity treats the Bible as an open book – a book of the people.  Personal study, interpretation and application are encouraged.

The same was true in the early church.  Long before anyone had ever heard of the Magisterium or its claims, Christians were reading and obeying the Scriptures.  After all, the Holy Spirit addressed the books of the New Testament to ordinary people – not to apostles, not to bishops, not to a Pope and not to a Magisterium.” 

Is McCarthy’s claim about the early church correct?  Was it common for individual Christians to read and obey the Scriptures, and see them as the sole rule of faith?  In reality, his claim has no basis in fact or history.  He offers no citation or support for his contention that in the early church, ordinary Christians were engaged in personal study, interpretation and reading of the Scriptures.  And any such claim would be dependent upon two basic assumptions.   The first is that they would have individual copies of the Scriptures available for their use.   The second is that they could read.  Neither of those assumptions are historically accurate.

What percentage of people in Biblical times could read?   According to wiki:

“In ancient Israel, the Torah (the fundamental religious text) includes commands to read, learn, teach and write the Torah, thus requiring literacy and study. In 64 AD the high priest caused schools to be opened. Emphasis was placed on developing good memory skills in addition to comprehension oral repetition. For details of the subjects taught, see History of education in ancient Israel and Judah. Although girls were not provided with formal education in the yeshivah, they were required to know a large part of the subject areas to prepare them to maintain the home after marriage, and to educate the children before the age of seven. Despite this schooling system, it would seem that many children did not learn to read and write, because it has been estimated that “at least ninety percent of the Jewish population of Roman Palestine [in the first centuries AD] could merely write their own name or not write and read at all”, or that the literacy rate was about 3 percent.”

“Literacy rates in the Greco-Roman world were seldom more than 20 percent; averaging perhaps not much above 10 percent in the Roman empire, though with wide regional variations, probably never rising above 5 percent in the western provinces. The literate in classical Greece did not much exceed 5 percent of the population.

In fact, literacy rates do not begin to significantly change until the last 150 to 200 years.  

Another issue of course is even if a person could read, does that mean they would have a copy of the Scriptures available to them?  Prior to the invention of the printing press, only a very small minority of very wealthy people could afford such a luxury.   Certainly not the common person. 

Have you ever heard the claim that the Catholic Church used to chain the Bibles in order to keep people from reading them?  It is one of those anti-Catholic claims that at one time was quite popular.  But it’s not without some truth.   Yes, the Church did have the practice of “chaining” Bibles in medieval churches.   But the goal was not to prevent people from being able to read the Scriptures.  If that had been the goal, the Bible would have been placed under lock and key, with no visible access at all.   Rather it was “chained” in order to prevent an unscrupulous sort from stealing it, while giving access to those who could read.  

The evangelical site I often use does note the problem of the lack of availability of the Scriptures to the common person and how that impacts a view of sola-Scriptura:

“On a practical matter, a frequent objection to the concept of sola scriptura is the fact that the canon of the Bible was not officially agreed upon for at least 250 years after the church was founded. Further, the Scriptures were not available to the masses for over 1500 years after the church was founded. How, then, were early Christians to use sola scriptura, when they did not even have the full Scriptures? And how were Christians who lived before the invention of the printing press supposed to base their faith and practice on Scripture alone if there was no way for them to have a complete copy of the Scriptures? This issue is further compounded by the very high rates of illiteracy throughout history. How does the concept of sola scriptura handle these issues?

The problem with this argument is that it essentially says that Scripture’s authority is based on its availability. This is not the case. Scripture’s authority is universal; because it is God’s Word, it is His authority. The fact that Scripture was not readily available, or that people could not read it, does not change the fact that Scripture is God’s Word.”

I would certainly agree that Scripture’s authority is universal and the fact that it was not readily available or practical for all to read does not change the fact that it is the written word of God.  That truth however does not change the practical reality that for the greatest part of church history the concept that ordinary Christians should and could base their faith and practice on Scripture alone, or “test” whatever doctrine they may be taught by the Church against Scripture is a fallacy.   It simply was not a possibility.  

Unfortunately, the author of that article then determines the fact that not everyone could have a Bible is somehow the Church’s fault instead of the reality of the world the Church was born into:

“The fact that Scripture was not readily available, or that people could not read it, does not change the fact that Scripture is God’s Word. Further, rather than this being an argument against sola scriptura, it is actually an argument for what the church should have done, instead of what it did. The early church should have made producing copies of the Scriptures a high priority. While it was unrealistic for every Christian to possess a complete copy of the Bible, it was possible that every church could have some, most, or all of the Scriptures available to it. Early church leaders should have made studying the Scriptures their highest priority so they could accurately teach it. Even if the Scriptures could not be made available to the masses, at least church leaders could be well-trained in the Word of God. Instead of building traditions upon traditions and passing them on from generation to generation, the church should have copied the Scriptures and taught the Scriptures (2 Timothy 4:2)”.

That view shows such a complete lack of knowledge of history it is almost breathtaking.  First of all, has the author never read, or even researched the great volumes of Biblical commentaries from “early church leaders?”  From St. Jerome, who first translated the Scriptures into the common language of the Roman empire (Latin) to provide greater access, to St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the list can continue with hundreds of Godly men from the beginning of the church to this day who made studying the Scriptures their highest priority so they could accurately teach the faith.  You can find many of their works here:

There is also the reality that the Catholic Church did make copying the Scriptures their highest priority.  This was so that each local Church could have a copy to use for reading, studying, and proclaiming, especially during the liturgy.  “Scriptoriums” were developed and it was the job of many monks throughout the ages to spend their entire life’s work copying the Scriptures.  Thousands of at least partial copies of these manuscripts survive today:

“The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work of literature, with over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts catalogued, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian. The dates of these manuscripts range from c. 125 to the introduction of printing in Germany in the 15th century”.

Those numbers do not take into account the volumes of Scriptures that were copied that did not survive to the present day but were simply “worn out” from frequent use.

This was a painstaking effort given the lack of technology of the time.   Here is a really interesting overview of the process:

The great reality is the Christian faith was dependent upon the oral proclamation and teaching of the Gospel to the masses for the first 1500 years of its existence.   This is the world the Church inherited, not the world the Church caused.  And even today, with all of our technology there are 2000 language groups in the world who do not have the Bible translated into their native language.

While the efforts of groups to combat this problem are noble and needed, it doesn’t change the fact that for the greatest portion of history, the view that individual Christians should and could test any doctrines the Church professed for themselves against Scripture is an illusion.  So how could that ever have been how Christ chose to safeguard the truth of the faith?

That does not mean the Catholic Church determined that people had no need of the Scriptures.  Rather, the Church took to heart that the Gospel was to be preached and heard.  And there is a reason Sacred Scripture never speaks of the faith as being “read” and then believed.   It always speaks of the faith as being “heard” and then believed:

Romans 10:14  But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?

And many other verses to consider:   Luke 8:12-13, John 4:42, John 5:24, Acts 4:4, Acts 13:48, Acts 18:8, Acts 21:20, Romans 10:16, Galatians 3:2, Galatians 3:5, Ephesians 1:13, 1 Thessalonians 2:13

The need to make sure people knew the Scriptures is why the lectionary was developed – a cycle of readings whereby during the Liturgy of the Word the Church ensured that the faithful heard the Scripture read and proclaimed each time they attended Mass.  In addition, the role of sacred art in spreading the Gospel should not be diminished:

“The term Poor Man’s Bible has come into use in modern times to describe works of art within churches and cathedrals which either individually or collectively have been created to illustrate the teachings of the Bible for a largely illiterate population. These artworks may take the form of carvings, paintings, mosaics or stained-glass windows. In some churches a single artwork, such as a stained-glass window, has the role of Poor Man’s Bible, while in others, the entire church is decorated with a complex biblical narrative that unites in a single scheme.”

For centuries before Protestants invented a doctrine of sola-Scriptura, the Church has been reading to her children and teaching the faith in spite of limitations of technology and literacy.   And while as Catholics we are indeed encouraged to read and study our Bibles, we worship in the same way those first Christians did – we hear the Scripture proclaimed during Mass, and view the great moments of salvation through beautiful works of art.

And as to the original claim anti-Catholic claim I quoted in this post – “Long before anyone had ever hear of the Magisterium or its claims, Christians were reading and obeying the Scriptures” – hopefully all will understand that the idea that the early Christians were reading and obeying Scriptures is simply false.   As for never hearing of the Magisterium or its claims, they had the apostles, and their successors.   And while Scripture never tells us to “obey the Scriptures” it does tell us to obey church leadership.  After exploring the Scriptures used to support sola-Scriptura in these last few posts, my next posts will turn to what the Bible actually teaches about the authority Christ gives to these men and the Church he established, and how that authority recognized in the Church by the early Christians is the same authority Catholics recognize in the Church today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s