Sola Scriptura: Death by a Thousand (or Ten) Qualifications?


The doctrine of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) began its life as a concern for proper authority in religious matters.  By “authority” here I mean something like “that which has the right to compel agreement.” A religious authority would be one which has the right to compel faith (orthodoxy) and actions (orthopraxy). This does not mean that one cannot make free choices in these matters, but simply that in cases of faith and action, a person’s refusal to agree with the authority would signal an objective wrong on the part of the one refusing to submit (should that person wish to remain in the religion at least).

It seems clear that all human authority in religious matters would be superseded by God’s. Now, since God is clearly the authority for a Christian, and since the only record of God’s communication that all Christian bodies believe to be inspired is the Bible, the Bible must have the top spot as far as authorities go.  This was the original sense of sola scriptura – the Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of faith and actions – not that it was the only authority (cf. The Shape of Sola Scriptura or Getting the Reformation Wrong   – and for critical responses to this view see CTC or NLG).

Why call it “Scripture alone” then? Because all of the Protestant “sola’s” are contrasts with what the reformers saw as distortions in Roman Catholic theology. Salvation through “Christ alone” (solus Christus) obviously did not mean that, given Christ, salvation simply followed. Rather, “Christ alone” meant something like “Jesus Christ, without the addition of something else [church, priesthood, etc.], is all that is required to make salvation possible.” The reformers taught that faith is also required of course – but not faith plus works (thus, sola fide). Sola scriptura meant that Scripture alone was the ultimate authority in religious matters as opposed to including Church tradition or the teachings of men.

While sola scriptura is still sometimes expressed along the lines of Scripture alone having “supreme and final authority in faith and life” (source), many evangelical Christians couch sola scriptura  more in terms of denying any authority outside of the Bible. If Scripture alone is the ultimate authority, then it is thought that to follow that a “Bible-only” methodology for doing theology/ethics/science/etc. will keep one safe from the errors of fallible human thinking. The first page of a Google search brought up two representative statements of this popular understanding of sola scriptura:

“Scripture alone is called God’s word (cf. Jn.10:35; 2 Tim.3:16; 2 Pt.1:20), and in 1 Cor. 4:6 we are specifically told ‘not to go beyond what is written.’. . . Not once did Jesus speak well about traditions. Neither did Peter nor Paul as he states in Col. 2:8 ‘Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.’” (Source).

“The only way to know for sure what God expects of us is to stay true to what we know He has revealed—the Bible. We can know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that Scripture is true, authoritative, and reliable. The same cannot be said of tradition. The Word of God is the only authority for the Christian faith. Traditions are valid only when they are based on Scripture and are in full agreement with Scripture. Traditions that contradict the Bible are not of God and are not a valid aspect of the Christian faith. Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible.” (Source)

But can Evangelicals consistently reject extra-biblical authority? As will be made clear below, I do not think so. Bible-alone theology may sound very fine when constrained to an abstract ideal, but as Antony Flew once said, a good hypothesis can “be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.”

Even allowing that the Bible is the final and ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice, it still must be understood. That is, the Bible’s authoritative teaching resides in the message it conveys – not the physical book itself. And discovering the message of the Bible requires navigating through many layers of human interaction first. These layers of human interaction are like lenses through which the Bible’s message is seen. It seems to me, then, that to whatever degree these interpretive layers influence how one understands the Bible’s message, to that degree they have an authoritative function (at least practically speaking). This seems to introduce the very kind of human authority that the popular sense of sola scriptura wants to avoid.  Below are presented ten such layers for consideration.

Linguistic Layer

The average-Evangelical-in-America-today often thinks that he “just believes his Bible” when it comes to his religious convictions. But if you asked him, “What exactly is the Bible?” he would probably answer, “The Word of God.” But the Bible he is holding almost certainly does not contain the literal words of God – at least not how he is probably thinking of them. Let’s begin here, for one important layer of authoritative reliance required for today’s Bible-believer is linguistic.

The Bible is actually a bound collection of writings written in three ancient languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and (Koine) Greek. Since our average-Evangelical-in-America-today does not understand these ancient languages fluently, the Bible he holds is almost certainly a translation of the words of God. But there is a plethora of Bible translation “versions” on the shelf of the average book store, and translation issues are not always minor. For example, are we to “abstain from all appearance of evil” as the KJV has it, or are we to “abstain from every form of evil” as modern versions state? And try looking up Matthew 17:21 or 23:14 in the NIV sometime!

So how did our average-Evangelical-in-America-today choose from among them? Was his choice authoritative? And if so, was he operating as his own authority in the matter? Or, assuming he researched these versions, would not the source(s) he consulted for his decision have, in a sense, authoritatively determined what he is going to read in his Bible? Further, how were these authorities chosen? What if they were wrong? And how could he ever find out?

Suppose our average-Evangelical-in-America-today decides that trusting some extra-biblical authority to pick his Bible version is not a safe practice – for sola scriptura says no authority outside Scripture is trustworthy enough for such a decision. There seems only one way to solve the problem: stop relying on them. The only way he could authoritatively choose the best Bible version without invoking the authority of mere men would be to become an authority himself. That is, he will have to become an authority on the original languages for himself. But, of course, any teacher of biblical languages will herself be another extra-biblical authority. In fact, it is authoritative linguists that (hopefully) were responsible for the different Bible versions themselves. But if these authorities cannot be trusted to produce trustworthy Bible translations, how can they be trusted to teach others how to do so?

Further, how long will it take to achieve an authoritative linguistic status? Given the training available at many schools, 7-10 years is probably wildly conservative (and that’s if one does not add in Aramaic and any other cognate languages that factor into translation). This also assumes that our average-Evangelical-in-America-today can study full time.

Translational-Interpretative Layer

However, even after learning vocabulary and grammar, the fact is that words do not change into thoughts without interpretation. Even if our average-Evangelical-in-America-today learns the original languages, this does not mean that interpretation is not part of the process of translation. Translation involves far more than simple word replacement. Just like in English, the biblical languages do not come with neat, immutable dictionaries. Even theologically significant words like “save,” “justification,” “sanctification,” and “resurrection” are not always used the same way in Scripture.

To really translate the original languages correctly, one must be familiar with how that language was used at the time of the original writing. To do so, the other writings of the same chronological, geographical, and cultural background must be studied. Indeed, this is how the standard lexicons derive their data. But who can know which lexicon to trust? Biases come into play with lexicons as well (consider BAGD’s treatment of glossa where, after noting the term simply means “languages,” there is suddenly “no doubt about the thing referred to, namely the broken speech of persons in religious ecstasy”). Further, room must be left for linguistic innovation. The Bible was written in living languages, thus it is entirely possible that subtle usage changes were being made that are lost on later readers relying on typical usage.

But again, for sake of argument let us stipulate that our average-Evangelical-in-America-today has somehow overcome these issues too. After gaining unbiased insight into linguistic usage that even experts might have missed, he now needs to consider an even more difficult interpretive issue.

Hermeneutical-Philosophical Layer

Language and translation study may give our average-Evangelical-in-America-today knowledge of what ancient texts say, but understanding what they mean is another issue.

Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation of meaning. Is there an over-arching hermeneutic that works for the whole Bible? Do we simply take all words literally (at “face value”), or are some non-literal understandings actually more accurate? Literal hermeneutic theory might seem safest, but of course this will obscure any non-literal texts. The ancient Church had a four-fold hermeneutic. They believed for centuries that the Bible had literal, allegorical, moral, and analogical senses. While this four-fold hermeneutic is often decried today, consider the difficulty faced in taking many of the prophetic fulfillments of Jesus’ birth with a literal/grammatical/historical-only  hermeneutic (e.g., Isa. 7:14 cf. Mt. 1:18-25; Jer. 31:15 cf. Mt. 2:16-18; or Hos. 11:1 cf. Mt. 2:13-15). Non-Christians have field days with the original “intent” of these passages and their alleged misuse by the gospel writers.

Few seriously argue that Scripture can be taken in a purely literalistic fashion, for at least some of the Bible is poetry, metaphor, hyperbole, etc. But recognition of these things requires extra-biblical knowledge – for the Bible itself does not always signal these elements. So, in many cases, hermeneutics becomes philosophy of language. But the Bible is not a useful source for coming to one’s philosophy of language either, for one must already have a philosophy of language before the Bible can be interpreted!

Further, literary devices like hyperbole and metaphor rely entirely on one’s experience of reality to recognize. But reality, too, must be interpreted. Thus, correct notions of metaphysics are necessary if we are to avoid subjectivity in biblical interpretation. Thus, one must get one’s metaphysics and linguistic philosophies correct before hermeneutic theories can be properly evaluated or applied. Either philosophical field could easily take up a lifetime.

But let us allow for super-human accomplishments on the part of our average-Evangelical-in-America-today, and grant that perhaps his view of reality and language are exactly correct, and his views are completely uncluttered by inaccurate understandings of his personal experiences. The authorities involved in such pursuits (even if they include only the philosopher himself) are going to once again be mostly (if not entirely) extra-biblical.

And the work is not over yet.

Historical-Cultural Layer

Abstract language meaning might be objectively understood via a proper hermeneutic, but its specific referents can remain unknown. The particular realities that words pick out are not shared by the biblical writers and our average-Evangelical-in-America-today, for they are thousands of years, and thousands of miles, removed from one another.

Sometimes important cultural details are sometimes lost to history. For example, what exactly is the “head covering” Paul refers to in his letter to the Corinthians, and what was its purpose? What is this “baptism for the dead” Paul refers to in the same letter, and what was its purpose? Mere knowledge of language, even coupled to a good hermeneutic, cannot answer these questions. And sometimes we do not even know a question should be asked. When Jesus warns the Laodiceans to be either hot or cold, not many later readers recognized the import of those two temperatures to a city without its own water supply.

A thorough knowledge of history and culture is necessary to avoid anachronism and other such errors, and to catch subtle remarks that the original readers would have recognized. In the New Testament, for example, we come upon scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, synagogues, and a Roman Government without much introduction or explanation in many cases. Yet none of these are known from the Old Testament. The Bible causes these issues, it does not solve them. But to whom can our average-Evangelical-in-America-today go to learn about these things if not extra-biblical authorities? Unless, of course, he simply becomes an expert on history on his own. A time machine (coupled with an anti-aging device) perhaps?

Assuming that our average-Evangelical-in-America-today somehow (miraculously?) manages to meet the above criteria, the job is still not done. For once one knows what a text says and what it means, one must then grasp what it teaches.

Applicational Layer

After discovering what a text says and what it means, it is time to get something out of it. Application answers the question, “What is the text teaching?” Here we run into more examples of Scripture not supplying easy answers.

Do the stories of people speaking in tongues in the Book of Acts teach us that believers today must do likewise? Is the head covering in 1 Corinthians a practice that has some parallel today? Does the acceptance of slavery throughout the Bible indicate that it has an acceptable place in the world today? Why do we practice the Lord’s Supper but not foot washing when Jesus commanded both during the same talk? These sorts of questions cannot be answered simply by knowing what the Bible says or means.

Discovering how the truths of Scripture apply to us today is the whole goal of Bible study – yet the Bible is rarely clear on just how to do so. Many disagreements over Christian practice do not involve issues of translation or interpretation, because knowing what the text means does not necessarily tell us what it teaches. Even in cases of prescription (rather than mere description), issues of cultural relevance, proper dispensations, audience similarity, general vs. particular commands, etc. all remain. Now subjects such as ethics, moral philosophy, theology, and others come into play. And, since it is the Bible that seems to raise the above issues, it seems that once again extra-biblical information is required.

But what if our average-Evangelical-in-America-today sought this extra-biblical information from God rather than man? Wouldn’t that solve the problem? It depends on who you ask.

Mystical Layer

The “mystical” layer is unique to this list in that it is both more and less controversial than the others – especially when it comes to authority. On the “less controversial” side, I think most Christians will agree that without the aid of God, the Scriptures cannot be fully “grasped” (I am being purposefully vague in order to make the statement general enough to be true). Now, whether this help comes in the form of direct explanation of textual meaning, divinely inspired objectivity, subjective personal application, or any of a host of other explanations – God is doing something when the faithful read His word.

The difficulty is the “more controversial” part. For one thing, there are a number of views concerning God’s role in interpretation (sometimes called “illumination”). Some believe that God only steps in to call the “close ones,” while others think they are getting a live feed from God’s mind via the pages of the Bible virtually every time they open it. In either case (and for any in between), if the Bible itself cannot settle a given view, then claiming that God’s aid sealed the deal would be to invoke divine authority for one’s own understanding. The result should be the very kind of extra-biblical authority that sola scriptura seems to seek to avoid. Further, to whatever extent God is helping out, that part of the interpretative process would seem to be free from error. But few will allow (whether theologically or pragmatically) for any infallibility being introduced into the process. For most this would smack of either infallible Catholic papal claims or charismatic prophetic craziness – neither of which comport with sola scriptura.

A more difficult fact to deal with is that while the Church underwent one or two important splits in its first 1,500 years, “sola scriptura Christianity” has managed to break itself into more than 20,000 denominations in the last 500. If God’s guidance in some way insured some allowable extra-biblical authority in understanding Scripture, then how could it be fairly determined which denomination (or, in many cases, which individual) has it? It all sounds very impressive when a preacher or teacher challenges his hearers to check his words against the Bible, personal study, or prayer – but with the abundance of interpretive options awaiting the researcher (consider, for example, the popular “multi-view” book series put out by more than one evangelical publisher), this challenge is hardly threatening.

I will leave additional theological issues with the mystical layer aside, for they do not necessarily help or hinder either side in the present consideration of sola scriptura. For now it is enough to note that whatever role God plays in the process of biblical interpretation, it does not seem to get what is needed to avoid extra-biblical authority. Even if a non-question begging sola scriptura theory of (and evidence for) mystical illumination were forthcoming, the chaotic theological results are not easily explained.

Our average-Evangelical-in-America-today will not, therefore, be able to trust in personal mystical guidance and follow sola scriptura at the same time. So for now, let’s just get back to the Bible – the one source we know we can trust.

If, that is, we really have one.

Textual Layer

Supposing that our average-Evangelical-in-America-today learns the original biblical languages so well that he can pick up an original Greek New Testament or Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament and read it as easily as he can an English translation. He has overcome all interpretive and philosophical biases, and has learned enough about history and culture to catch every nuance that an original reader would have. He is also accessing God’s mystical guidance (if it is available) without distortion. No more “Bible versions” for this average-Evangelical-in-America-today, right?


Unfortunately, the Bible version issue does not disappear once one masters the original languages. Now he must also choose which “original Bible” to read. For the New Testament alone he must choose between the Minority and the Majority text traditions (and there are different versions of each of these forms, such as the Nestle-Aland or the United Bible Society’s, or the Textus Receptus – each having had numerous revisions). The Old Testament, too, has some textual issues – the most notable being that the Hebrew manuscript copies (the “Masoretic” texts) that we have are much later than the original writings. There is also the Greek translation of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint, or “LXX”) which is quoted more in the New Testament than the MT, yet sometimes differs considerably from the Hebrew texts we have.

Arguments for each of these versions abound, and have spawned their own fields of study commonly referred to as Textual Criticism. Textual Criticism deals with issues arising from the fact that we do not have the original manuscripts of the Bible. What we do have are thousands of copies, some very early, that must be sorted through and compared for accuracy. As skeptics are happy to point out, few of these manuscripts agree completely. Now, this is not such a huge problem since given thousands of comparisons we can arrive at a pretty solid understanding of what the original must have said. But differences (“variants”) remain, and questions need to be answered when it comes to deciding which variants to use when producing the “original” edition. In how many manuscripts does the variant reading occur? What are the dates for these manuscripts? In what region of the world were these manuscripts found? What could have caused these varying readings? Which reading can best explain the origin of the other readings? Etc.

A lot of work, then, is needed just to produce an accurate original language Bible (assuming, of course, that the original wording has indeed been retained amongst all these disparate copies). How is our average-Evangelical-in-America-today going to choose between them? Well, unless he is willing to trust in the text-critical authorities, he’ll have to learn text criticism itself. Worse, unless he wants to trust in the people who typed up what is actually found on these ancient manuscripts, he’ll have to gain access to all of them directly, from all over the world, and make his own copies. To do otherwise would be to trust extra-biblical authorities (besides himself) with copying the words of God.

But let’s cut our average-Evangelical-in-America-today some slack and say that he does somehow gain the true perspective on text criticism and obtains his own copies of all available manuscripts. How long will it take to go through all these copies? Professionals spend their entire careers working on mere subsets of these document collections. This pushes the possibility of avoiding extra-biblical authority even farther from the already outrageous situation we have already granted to our average-Evangelical-in-America-today.

And speaking of collections – why does our average-Evangelical-in-America-today trust anyone to tell him which books he should even be including? Welcome to the canonical layer.

Canonical Layer

Despite what our average-Evangelical-in-America-today may have at once thought, he now knows that the Bible is not “a book.” Rather, it is a collection of various writings that are bound together for convenience. But who decided which books are in this collection? And how did they do so?

The official title of the biblical collection is “canon.” Now, the canon of Scripture did not begin to be solidified until the 3rd or 4th century. The Church was teaching from both oral and written traditions before that time, holding authoritative councils, writing the creeds that would determine Christian orthodoxy, and using all of these in the process of canonization. Thus, ironically, it would seem that to ignore this early extra-biblical tradition might also justify ignoring the biblical canon itself.

Is the average-Evangelical-in-America-today just as free to jettison the biblical canon as he is the traditional Church creeds and councils? Would an average-Evangelical-in-America-today feel free to dismiss certain books of the Bible if they did not sit well with him? Would he be free to add to the canon should he “feel led” to do so? If so, what is the standard by which he could or could not do so? And how would these arguments work with or against extra-biblical Church authority?

Numerous tests for canonicity have been suggested to avoid this problem, but many of them are the result of a-historical attempts at “reverse engineering” the canon. Tests include: evidence of inspiration, proper spiritual character, church edification, doctrinal accuracy, apostolic authorship or endorsement, general church acceptance, etc. The problem is that several of these rely on subjective criteria, others are objective but rely on the testimony of extra-biblical tradition for their evidence. To take just one example: the criterion of apostolicity relies on knowledge of who wrote the book in question and / or the author’s relation to an apostle. But several NT books do not name their author (e.g., the Gospels and Hebrews), and others are vague (e.g., James, Revelation). Moreover, even the books that do name their authors can only be trusted as far as they are deemed trustworthy in the first place. The Church did not accept the gospels of Thomas or of Mary – why not? The facts are that the members of the Church closest to the time of the apostles disputed the content of the NT canon, and that this disputation continued well into the Reformation (on both Catholic and Protestant sides), and disagreements of varying degrees continue right up to today. Thus the escape from extra-biblical authority sought by these tests is often lacking.

Now our average-Evangelical-in-America-today faces a critical dilemma: he’s spent years learning the languages, figuring out the best text-critical theory, and somehow obtained his own copies of all the relevant manuscripts – but he still has to trust extra-biblical authorities to even know which books belong in the Bible in the first place. But let us simply suppose once again that our average-Evangelical-in-America-today gets this one right. He nails the canon and somehow justifies his choices without any appeal to extra-biblical authority (perhaps he uses Calvin’s test of self-authenticating testimony . . . which of course is also extra-biblical). Is he done? Can he now be sure of his Bible’s teachings without relying on any outside authority?

Hardly. Indeed, he has only begun.

Traditional Layer

If the Church’s traditions are not considered authoritative, then not only are its biblical interpretations and extra-biblical teachings called into question – but so might its councils, creeds, and the canon of Scripture itself. For whatever arguments serve to create distrust in the authority of the early Church also makes other areas of orthodoxy open to criticism, and how can sola scriptura survive if we cannot be sure of what counts as “scriptura” in the first place? But many claim that the whole point of sola scriptura is to avoid traditions! Isn’t that what gets the Church into trouble in the first place?

Does Scripture teach the faithful to mistrust tradition? No, it does not. Rather, it warns of following false traditions (just like false philosophy, false religion, etc.). It’s the “false” part that is important. Claims such as the ones mentioned in the introduction concerning Scriptures’ alleged negative outlook on tradition must simply ignore other verses to remain consistent (which is made easier by the NIV translators who purposefully translated the Greek term paradosis as “traditions” in its negative contexts, and as “teachings” in its positive references!). For example, the same apostle who warned against following man-made traditions also said:

“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle”
(2 Thessalonians 2:15)

“Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us”
(2 Thessalonians 3:6)

“Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you”
(1 Corinthians 11:2)

Now, to be absolutely sure of one’s understanding of Christian doctrine from the Bible alone, at least three things must be the case:

  1. First, authoritative tradition must have ceased with the apostles (to avoid the self-defeating proposition that the Bible – which teaches that traditions must be trusted – alone is trustworthy).
  2. Second, the Bible would have to be perfectly clear in what it teaches (to avoid any possible misunderstanding, each part would have to have this clarity – for if it did not it may be the case that one part would alter another).
  3. Third, everything the apostles wanted taught must have been recorded in Scripture (because the slightest bit of additional information could radically alter our understanding of anything else we read).

The first two points seem to be self-evidently required, but the first begs the question and is self-defeating because the Bible does not teach (at least not clearly) that authoritative tradition ceased with the apostles. If this is one’s theological position that is fine (and the theological layer is coming up!), but it must be recognized as such. As to the second criterion, the numerous and disparate interpretations of Scripture offered by the very people who proclaim its clarity seem to argue against that position. If one responds that proper hermeneutics/philosophy/ etc. are required to attain this clarity then we are back to additional layers of interpretation. The third point is even more seriously problematic for sola scriptura as it has been popularly defined, however. For even if Church tradition after the apostles is not authoritative, and even if Scriptures are perfectly clear, it would only have taken one extra sentence to change everything.

As an example, let’s consider communion (the Lord’s Supper / the Eucharist). Paul told the Corinthians concerning communion, “the rest I will set in order when I come,” (1 Cor. 11:34). Suppose that what he later said to them was, “By the way, Jesus Christ is physically present in the communion bread and wine.” That one sentence would be a game changer for interpretation of not only 1 Corinthians 11, but for John 6 and Matthew 26 as well! Now, we do not seem to know what Paul “set in order” concerning communion when he came to them later.  2 Corinthians says nothing about it. Paul does mention two other letters to the Corinthians that we do not have, so perhaps it was in those. Or maybe in the epistle that he sent to the church at Laodicea (Colossians 4:16) he said something of interpretive importance. Either way, it did not make it into the Bible – and to be 100% certain of his Bible-only understandings, our average-Evangelical-in-America-today would have to know for sure.

What we do know is that the Church held to a non-memorial-only view of communion for nearly 1,500 years. This view might not be clear from Scripture, but it is no less clear than Zwingli’s memorial-only view. How can sola scriptura solve this debate then? The same could be said for the Bishop/Elder distinction – this does not seem clear in Scripture, but it was recognized very early by the Church whose leaders were taught by the apostles. For the average-Evangelical-in-America-today, however, the early Church is not considered an authoritative source. So its tradition cannot be trusted to authoritatively solve the problem. This remains a problem even if some new bit of information surface, for these would be extra-biblical too.

Thus, even if our average-Evangelical-in-America-today can successfully demonstrate that no extra-biblical tradition is authoritative unless it accords with [his understanding of] Scripture, the issue remains. Judging extra-biblical tradition based on the Bible when the Bible is unclear is going to be a failed project. Yet for our average-Evangelical-in-America-today, it seems to be all he has to go on. Worse, in cases where extra-biblical traditions could legitimately overturn a Bible-only interpretation, then a Bible-only approach would never – even in principle – be able to authoritatively judge against extra-biblical tradition (for even apostolic teaching is extra-biblical if it did not make it into the Bible). Since such a situation is certainly possible, then given a Bible-only methodology, our average-Evangelical-in-America-today could only hope to arrive at probable interpretations. He would remain, ultimately, unsure of a great many things.

Now, mere logical possibility does not equal actual evidence. Perhaps arguments can be produced which support a contrary position, but since the Bible does not contain them, they are extra-biblical too. This should cause a problem for the popular view of sola scriptura, for these sorts of positions turn out to be not so much biblical as theological.

Theological Layer

Since the Bible does not say that it alone is trustworthy or authoritative, the idea that it is so is a theological one. In many areas holding to theological positions that are not clearly stated in the Bible is not necessarily a big problem, since many positions are based on theological speculation. Here, however, it becomes a bigger issue.

It would be incoherent to claim that the Bible alone is a trustworthy source of theological information when the Bible itself does not say that it alone is a trustworthy source of theological information. In addition, it would also turn out to be self-defeating since the Bible itself teaches that other sources of revelation exist (e.g., the principles of natural theology and law found in Rom. 1-2). And, since the Bible actually commands believers to hold to “traditions” that they “heard” (see above), it simply cannot be the case that the Bible’s position is that traditions do not become authoritative until they are written down. Something like this might be argued theologically, but it is not a teaching directly supportable from the words of the Bible. The same could be said for limiting authoritative “traditions” to the words the Apostles left us in Scripture – this is not what the early Church taught, and it pre-dated the New Testament itself.

But even our average-Evangelical-in-America-today (who stopped being average a LONG time ago!) could defend these theological positions, some extra-biblical authority is in the picture – for the Bible does not teach them directly. Even doctrines said to be derived from Scripture are still adding something to the mere words of the Bible and are, to that extent, extra-biblical. And once again, although attractive in the abstract, the ideal that theology can be directly supported from Scripture alone and achieve the authority the Church desires is a position held by the very theologians who disagree the most over theology! (Consider the popular Counterpoints series.)

And this brings us back to the original problem.


Bible-only theology sounds fine as long as it remains an abstract principle (or slogan). The reality is much messier. At least the following authoritative layers would need to be peeled back before a strict Bible-only theological method could succeed:

  1. Linguistic – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative translators.
  2. Translational-Interpretational – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative interpreters.
  3. Hermeneutical-Philosophical – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative philosophers.
  4. Historical-Cultural – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative historians.
  5. Applicational – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative teachers.
  6. Mystical – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative personal views.
  7. Textual – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative text critics.
  8. Canonical – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative Church decisions.
  9. Traditional – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative traditions.
  10. Theological – to avoid having to trust non-authoritative theologians.

In the real world, reliance on extra-biblical authority is found at nearly every step of Bible study. Even if our average-Evangelical-in-America-today had the time, materials, and intellect for such an endeavor, he would still realistically have to rely on a host of extra-biblical authorities (teachers, authors, researchers, principles, etc.) to learn all that he would need to know to become a trustworthy [yet extra-biblical, and thus still fallible!] authority himself.

As stated in the introduction, it seems to me that to whatever degree these layers of human interaction influence how one understands the Bible’s message, to that degree they have a practical authoritative function. (Perhaps independent tests are available to assess each layer’s authoritative status without engaging in question-begging or misplaced confidence. If so, then these need to be spelled out more clearly.) Thus, it seems clear that the Bible in our hands can only be depended upon to deliver authoritative truth to the degree that the authorities at each layer can be trusted to deliver authoritative truth.

Now, if sola scriptura is understood in its original sense as simply teaching that the Bible “alone is of supreme and final authority in faith and life,” then these problems may be avoided, for this would at least admit to the possibility (if not the necessity) of additional authorities. Further, under this view, sola scriptura can operate alongside extra-biblical authorities without necessarily placing any of them at the level that the Bible alone occupies. The pertinent question then becomes when these authorities can be considered trustworthy (when they are considered at all).


102 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura: Death by a Thousand (or Ten) Qualifications?

  1. I like the onion picture! Very appropriate.

    One thing… you are also presenting them as “qualifications” to the Protestant doctrine that the Bible is the ultimate authority?

    I wonder if these layers really constitute “qualifications” to the Protestant view?

    As you say concerning the doctring of Sola Scriptura, “the Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of faith and actions – not that it was the only authority”

    One Protestant response to this might be found in the distinction between the magisterial vs. the ministerial use of reason. Since the Bible is the ultimate authority, once the meaning is known, it cannot be judged to be false (the bible is compelling), whereas the Protestant can judge various human intellectual authorities (not necessarily compelling) to be right or wrong. This fact seems to be consistent with the SS doctrine.

    I guess I don’t see how a Protestant would see these layers as qualifications to the doctrine of SS.

    The force of the argument for me is that it is so darn difficult to do all the work you mentioned in order to get at the meaning of the text! The practicality of being able to actually get at the objective meaning of the text weighs more heavily on me (as a Protestant) than the claim of inconsistency in the SS doctrine.


  2. Matt (not-from-Germany haha),

    I am glad you responded first as you clarified some of the issues I was trying to bring out. The title was chosen more to generate interest via controversy haha – I do not think that the actual doctrine of sola scriptura has much to fear from these layers of interpretive authorities. Rather I was trying to bring out the fact that they exist and must, to some degree, be accepted as such. I think too many Christians think sola scriptura justifies a “me-and-my-Bible-only” approach to theology that ignores the numerous layers of interpretation that have already come between them and the word of God. They treat the Bible like it was written in English and dropped out of the sky in their own generation. 🙂 It was that sort of thinking I was addressing.

    And you bring up something else which is the difficulty factor. I think that for one person to get around all these layers by themselves and without any reliance on extra-biblical authority is virtually impossible. However, I do not think that God has left that task for us. We do in fact have good scholars working in all these areas that may be considered trustworthy. That trust, however, needs to be acknowldged for what it is. When I trust the Bible in my hands I am also implicitly trusting a host of additional authorites (probably all unknown to me) as well. A “me-and-my-Bible-only” person does not seem to recognize that fact. They also do not see that sola scriptura is no help to them – for this is not what the doctrine actually teaches. “Ultimate authroty” does not equal “only authority.”

  3. Yes! Trenchant analysis, Doug. A few thoughts:

    1. The modern-day Protestant who has gotten closest to what you describe would be required is N.T. Wright. Yet, tellingly, after all his study and learning, he has come up with yet another doctrine concerning justification!

    2. You could replace the average-Evangelical-in-America with the average-peasant-who-lived-between-100AD-1500AD. How was God’s revelation supposed to be known by them if they had to meet these requirements of scholarship and learning?

    3. I talk about the Evangelical need to reinvent the wheel and attempt to re-derive divine truth in every generation in my book.

    The point is that Protestants rely on extra-biblical people and ideas but often don’t realize it (and so deny it’s ramifications). Catholics admit it and claim that they can trust these extra-biblical people (the Magisterium) and ideas (sacred Tradition) because God is guiding them. Hence on this score Catholicism is preferable to Protestantism.

    Now, it might very well be that Catholics are mistaken and God isn’t guiding the Catholic Church, and it might be Protestants are right in that God isn’t guiding ANY church or group to know divine revelation without error or corruption, but if that is the case then we are all in trouble because we can only appeal to the Holy Spirit “in me” telling me something is true OR to the Academic “Magisterium” where most scholars lately have seemed to reach a general consensus that such-and-such book is probably canonical and that Jesus likely did say this phrase but not that one, etc.

  4. This blog post was a bit mind-blowing for me (despite knowing some of it already). You managed to refute sola scriptura and deliver a mini-treatise on where the Bible came from at the same time!

    Have you heard the term “solo scriptura”? Basically, it’s what you’re talking about. Instead of sola scriptura (the Bible is the last word on the subject), solo scriptura argues that nothing but the Bible is acceptable. I read a blog post a while ago contrasting the two, but I’ve since deleted the bookmark to the website, and don’t feel like doing an extensive Google search at the moment.

  5. Hannah – Thank your for your comments. “Solo Scriptura” is the term used by Mathison in his book “The Shape of Sola Scriptura” that I reference in the article. I think it is a good contrast between what sola scriptura originally meant and what many people take it to mean now.

  6. Devin – Thanks for responding. I do think that a recognition of all these layers will make the issue more clear to Evangelicals who have little knowledge of just what they are holding in their hands when they go to read their Bibles. I think a lot of the confusion in EV circles begins when they do not realize how much interpretation has already happened before they themselves start interpreting. And re-inventing the wheel (to various degrees of success) will always be a problem without historical grounding.

  7. Pingback: A Protestant Decimates Sola Scriptura | St. Joseph's Vanguard

  8. Doug,

    But isn’t it disturbing–even unacceptable–for an Evangelical (or any Protestant?) to concede that they accept this many layers of extra-biblical opinions and judgments when trying to understand the Bible?

    BTW, I’ve shared this link everywhere I can, so hopefully lots of people will read it!

  9. Devin – First, thanks for the links! (Although I don’t think I have “decimated sola scriptura” haha – maybe just the confused rendering it often gets).

    In reply to your query, I think that if sola scriptura is limited to its historical formulation (i.e., as a statement of ultimate authority and not as a principle of theological investigation) then the Protestant is not going to have to answer to the issues here. No one born after AD 98 got God’s word directly from the Apostles. So even if we limit authoritative teachings to Holy Scripture, even the Bible was necessarily mediated in some way after the autographs ceased to exist. The proper principle of sola scriptura can survive this fact, so long as other authorities are acknowledged.

    I think the issue then becomes, like I said at the end of the article, what authorities to accept (and why, and to what degree, etc.). We must then ask: Are we willing to accept only probable knowledge of God’s Word? If we trust that “God set it up this way so it must work,” then how do we deal with conflicting theologies? Is theological wrangling part of God’s plan to sharpen us?

    Lots of questions . . .

  10. Doug,

    Glad you liked the title. It’s more intriguing than “Protestant poses difficult questions for some strains of Evangelicalism who have a different understanding of sola Scriptura than the earliest coiners of that term.” 🙂

    The other authorities thing seems to run into the rebuttal that Called to Communion made (and you linked to in the blog post), where sola Scriptura reduces to solo Scriptura with respect to ultimate interpretive authority. Did you find the CtC rebuttal compelling?

    You asked: “Are we willing to accept only probable knowledge of God’s Word?” That’s what this line of thought leads to I think (unless one becomes Catholic). And many Protestants who have realized this have gone the emergent church/liberal Protestant route, viewing the Scriptures as important to read in “the community” but not being inerrant in any sense or even necessarily inspired by God.

    “Is theological wrangling part of God’s plan to sharpen us?” I would say, Yes, with a big ‘but’. Theological wrestling and argument and discussion is necessary and good, but God’s intention was that it should be done within His Church, bounded by the fences of dogma, and in union with the rightful leaders, the successors of the Apostles.

    Otherwise you get the “everything’s up for grabs” in every generation, and groups like the Oneness Pentecostals revive old heresies that have been settled dogmatically by the Church already.

    But consider the good theological wrestling that Augustine and Aquinas did, which deepened the Church’s understanding of God and the Faith tremendously. And today in the Catholic Church we are seeing great discussion from solid scholars and theologians on questions like embryo adoption.

    God bless,

  11. Devin,

    Hahaha – your revised title might work for a dissteration though hahaha. The Solo/Sola article was, I believe, the first CtC article I ever read and I was impressed. What I have found with most evangelicals is that they have this notion of orthodoxy but they don’t generally know where it comes from. If you ask, they’ll say the Bible teaches it. But of course that is a lot easier to think centuries after the Church has wrestled and died over those doctrines that today we get handed to us as if they were obvious! The question that really troubled me was how to define a teaching as heretical given that most evangelicals give only a nod of respect to the creeds, almost none to the councils, and generally know little about the canon formation. If heresy is simply what is not taught in the Bible then . . . wow. Trouble big time. Some of the more sophisticated thinkers will retreat to “the essentials” – but of course what are those? And how do we prove they are? And how do we prove which position is orthodox?

    All that to say that the sola-reducing-to-solo issue is one that must be dealt with. I do not think Mathison’s response was adequate. He, and others like him (e.g., the Evangelical Resourcement guys), seem to want to make Church history just authoritative enough to keep the heretics out, but not authoritative enough to overturn their own interpretations of Scripture (when they conflict). It’s one thing to say that Scripture is the ultimate authority – I think even Catholics/Orthodox could agree with that in principle. It’s at least the only inspired authority. But this becomes a distinction without a difference until you get beyond the theological ideal and actually start trying to understand that authority.

  12. Pingback: En protestant sågar Sola Scriptura | Novitas Catholicus

  13. Tack för din trackback, jag är inte säker på hur många av mina läsare kan förstå svenska dock!

    My Swedish is a little rusty 🙂 but I think the trackback below says: “Here you can read about a Protestant pastor and professor who saw Sola Scriptura and that goes in depth the ways in which evangelical Christians trust authority figures and teachings outside the Bible, without realizing it themselves. (Read here)

  14. How does your view differ from George Lindbeck’s “The Nature of Doctrine”? It seems like your view is much closer to the cultural-linguistic approach. Also, how do you understand this in light of the canonical-linguistic approach?

  15. “As stated in the introduction, it seems to me that to whatever degree these layers of human interaction influence how one understands the Bible’s message, to that degree they have a practical authoritative function.”

    Excellent article. It seems you conclude that it is inevitable that one or more of these authorities must end up being trusted.
    Now we know right away that many of these categories cannot be infallible, while others at least have that possibility. #2, 5, 7, 9, and 10 could potentially be all be under the infallible umberlla of #8. And that is the only option that makes sense I think.

    So I go back to your (correct) conclusion that these 10 items will all end up having some proportional degree of authoritative function, thus, if the influence is not from God will be obscuring the Bible’s message. Lets assume that is true.

    So can’t we eliminate the possibility of any of the items we KNOW cannot lead to truth by themselves? For instance with the translation bulletpoint. Even if Paul himself handed you a copy of Romans with the ink still wet, that perfect translation will not guarantee your understanding of it. So we can strike that one off the list. Down to 9 points now. See what I mean? If we go down the list, I think #8 is the only one that can be said to make sense. If Paul were to not just hand you the copy of Romans but were in the same room with you for a year, there is no doubt that you would know the truth. His apostolic authority is the kicker.

    Does #4 (historical) come into play in 2011 in determining where Paul is? Yeah, but it came into play in AD60 as well. Just cuz Paul walks in and claims to be from God, did not prove he was then and it does not prove it now,

    BUT that is the chosen method that Christ himself chose to pass on the gospel to us. Through apostles themselves. I say we stick with that method and submit to our bishops.

  16. Maranda – I am not familiar enough with these positions to really give a satisfying answer. I think I am more of an epistemological realist than Lindbeck and do not like to reduce hermeneutics to cultural linguistic categories. Sounds too Wittgensteinian to me. I think at least some language is rooted in reality and thus a correct translation is all that is needed. For example, “the grass withers” can be understood without authoritative gloss, because those words pick out a univocal reality that is shared between the first and twenty-first centuries (barring some metaphorical usage I suppose). So while I agree with much of what I have read of Lindbeck, I would beware of being too reductive. As to canonical-linguistic, I am again not in a good position to comment (I spend most of my time avoiding modern theology hahaha). I also think some of those correctives are good but again in a few places I disagree. For example, Vanhoozer writes somewhere that Church tradition follows from the canon or something like that, when I think history reveals just the opposite (see The Relation of Scripture to Church Tradition).

    Anyway, the article was just some musings based common evangelical themes – sorry I could not be of more help! 🙂

  17. David – That would be an interesting thought experiment! “How would the situation be different for a first century recipient of Paul’s letters?” I expect to see deal with this by the end of the year. 🙂

  18. Hi Doug,
    I hope you are well. You make a lot of good and valid points that Evangelicals should address. On the other hand, the idea that all theology and practice must depend on Scripture is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the Reformers’ teaching and practice, which, indeed, owed much to non-Biblical sources.

    Could you comment on Reformers’ definition of sola scriptura? “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from the Scripture,” and that “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are either clearly propounded … in some place of Scripture” or may be attained “in a due use of the ordinary means” (Westminster Confession, I.6-7, emphasis added). In other words, if a doctrine or practice is not necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, it is beyond the scope of sola scriptura.

    For example, while Jesus commanded baptism and observance of the Eucharist “in remembrance of Me,” He did not prescribe a particular mode of baptism or give a precise definition of what happens to the bread and wine in the Eucharist (nor did any other NT author, although Paul seems to imply that the bread and wine do not change in 1 Cor. 11:26-28 where three times – after the words of institution – he says “eat this bread and drink this cup”). Therefore, whether one immerses in baptism or understands Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in the way that Luther did or the way that Eusebius did (he called the elements symbols), such variations are non-essential, and thus beyond the scope of sola scriptura.

    It seems to me that where we get in trouble is trying to expand what is NECESSARY to be known, believed, and observed for salvation. Even the Roman Catholic Catechism affirms that the Apostles’ Creed (the baptismal creed) covers the fundamentals of the faith. What is necessary, therefore, is a pretty short list. Perhaps the old Lutheran (often mistaken for Augustine) was on to something when he wrote: “In the essentials, unity, in the non-essentials, liberty, in all things charity.”


  19. This is a good point. The Anglican 39 Articles makes this very clear as well, but I do not believe that it is not linked to sola scriptura per se. I am not sure how often in Reformed writings that Scripture’s singular or ultimate authority is limited to salvific truths. Payton addresses confused understandings of sola scriptura, and as far as I can remember he never mentions anything like this. In fact, he points out that Luther “came to a hermeneutical approach which enabled him to discern justification everywhere in Scripture . . . in every scriptural passage.” (Getting the Reformation Wrong, p.135).

    Luther wrote, “necessity forces us to run to the Bible with the writings of all teachers, and to obtain there a verdict and judgment upon them. Scripture alone is the true lord and master of all writings and doctrine on earth. If that is not granted, what is Scripture good for? The more we reject it, the more we become satisfied with men’s books and human teachers.” (Works, 32.11). Nowhere in this context does he limit this to salvation truths. He also said concerning one’s interpretation of Pharoah’s hardening of heart that, “In any case, we have an agreement that we are willing to fight each other, not by appealing to the authority of any doctor, but by that of Scripture alone.” (Works, 33.167). And he was not simply defending his views on salvation when, at the Diet of Worms, he made his famous “Here I stand” decree. So Luther at least did not always limit sola scriptura to salvation issues.

    In any case, the evangelical spin on this doctrine certainly does not make this qualification. And even if it did make this qualification, I think there would still be trouble. Virtually all of the layers I mention would still be at issue even if we only invoked the popular version of sola scriptura for salvation verses. We could still ask which of the salvation verses have been correctly translated, are truly canonical, have been correctly understood, etc.

    Further, Rupert Meldenius was certainly right concerning the threefold essentials distinction (nice call, btw!), but that does not solve the problem of what counts as essential, nor how one can discover what counts as essential. Even if we only invoked the popular version of sola scriptura for salvation verses, some of the “non-essential” issues might not be so non-essential after all. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” (John 6:53) and, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . ” (Luke 22). If the apostolic churches are correct in their view of the Eucharist as being the means of receiving Christ’s body and blood, then it very well might be the case that salvation is dependent on a valid sacrament. And that would bring up valid ministers, apostolic succession, etc.

  20. I understand what you are saying, but as one who has studied Vanhoozer, both his books and under him, you sound very much like him. In fact, he would even assmilate to the idea that he does not follow Lindbeck to the fullest degree, and advocates much of what you would say about the relationship of tradition and sola-scriptura. But, Vanhoozer is also a tongue and cheek inerrantist, and has been known to go so far as to deny the position, especially the Henry-Hodge hypothesis and the Chicago Statement on the relationship between language, reality, and the text of Scripture.

    I think you are much closer to a conventionalist, or quasi-Heidegarrian approach than you might be aware. When you use ideas of “layers” and “peelings” it seems to follow in the tradition of Lonergan in his book insight, and his Heidegarrian “thomism” than traditional realism.

    Furthermore, it seems like the realist position has been the strongest advocates for the idea of Sola Scriptura. In fact, one Anglican who is both a realist and believes in Sola Scriptura, JI Packer, has offered strong arguments against the ideas of “we can’t know the essentials” and the like if we don’t accept all the tradition and the like. I would recommend that you read his book: Fundamentalism and the Word of God and his chapter “Inerrancy and Sola Scriptura” in God’s Inerrant Word.

  21. Interestingly enough, Luther did not think one’s view of the Eucharist or practice of it was a non-essential matter. He thought Zwingli was outside of salvation due to his “memorial” view of the Eucharist.

    Therefore, the father of the Reformation does not even agree with the average Evangelical concerning the essentials that are found in Scripture. So his understanding or view of sola scriptura in a sense entails just the opposite of what Mike said earlier. It compels him to consider Zwinglians as ones that are outside of salvation, which would include all Southern Baptists as well as many “non-denominational, Bible-believing” Christians.

    Also, Paul seems to imply the opposite of a “memorial” view one chapter earlier in 1 Corinthians:

    “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:16-17)

    Paul also seems to be implying that the Eucharist is a unifying principle in the church. The many are “one” due to partaking of the “one” bread, not many breads.

  22. Maranda – Thank you so much for the book ideas! I am working in other areas at the moment but this is an issue close to my heart. 😉 I might send you some correspondence about these things via email if you do not mind.

  23. Hi Doug, (part 1 of 2)
    Apparently the post notifications aren’t working for me, but thank you for your response.

    Regarding the various comments and quotes from Luther, it is important to remember that he (an Augustinian monk) followed the example of his forebearer: he affirmed the supremacy of Scripture but also appealed frequently to the church fathers (as did Calvin and other Reformers). Therefore, either he was inconsistent or his understanding of sola scriptura differed significantly from the views expressed in your article. I could bring forward a number of quotes from early church fathers that sound very “sola scripturist,” but Roman Catholics are quick to deny they mean what they say because these church fathers also appealed to non-biblical sources. For example, Augustine wrote:

    But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of someone who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them.
    (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, 2.3.4)

    I also hesitate to appeal to Luther because it is often difficult to discern which of his statements represent settled theological reflection. For example, he later “ate” his infamous words (if not his beret!) re: the Book of James. Unlike Augustine, Luther did not leave us a book of “Retractions,” yet in the 1545 preface to the Complete Edition of his Latin Writings, he wrote: “I wished that all my books were buried in perpetual oblivion, so that there might be room for better ones.”

    (to be continued)

  24. (Part 2 of 2)
    Therefore, I defer to the Reformers’ views on sola scriptura as articulated in the formal confessions, such as the Westminster Confession and the Anglican 39 Articles (BTW – I’m Anglican; I didn’t quote the 39 Articles for the sake of brevity). If you do not think the statements I quoted represent sola scriptura, could you point me to which statements of these confessions do (or are you saying they failed to articulate this principle for which they are famous)?

    Given the narrower scope of historic sola scriptura, it seems to me that the “layers” you discuss are not as damaging as they might appear at first blush. One observation to begin with is that these “layers” are not uniquely problematic to those who hold to the Reformers’ formal definitions of sola scriptura. For example, are there not translation issues with non-biblical sources? Are there not also hermeneutical issues with the dogma “outside the church there is no salvation” (let alone questions regarding its veracity)? And can all Christians accept Boniface’s interpretation of this? (“It is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”) As for textual concerns, what variants actually affect doctrine? (I hope you’re not falling for the arguments of Bart Ehrman, who has been soundly refuted by numerous scholars). As for the canonical layer, I’d be happy to share what I’m writing on that subject separately. As for illumination, application and tradition, how does one choose between the competing versions that are available? (For example, how do you know that the Holy Spirit guided the seventh ecumenical council to reverse centuries of tradition – and Scriptural exhortation – strongly opposed to paying homage to images of saints?) As for the theological layer: in the light of the Reformers’ definition of sola scriptura, what would God leave out of Scripture that He considered necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation?

    BTW – I’m glad you appreciated my quote from Peter Meiderlin, alias “Rupertus Meldinius” (the Latin anagram of his German name).

    I look forward to your response.


  25. (Part 2 of 2)
    Therefore, I defer to the Reformers’ views on sola scriptura as articulated in the formal confessions, such as the Westminster Confession and the Anglican 39 Articles (BTW – I’m Anglican; I didn’t quote the 39 Articles for the sake of brevity). If you do not think the statements I quoted represent sola scriptura, could you point me to which statements of these confessions do (or are you saying they failed to articulate this principle for which they are famous)?

    Given the narrower scope of historic sola scriptura, it seems to me that the “layers” you discuss are not as damaging as they might appear at first blush. One observation to begin with is that these “layers” are not uniquely problematic to those who hold to the Reformers’ formal definitions of sola scriptura. For example, are there not translation issues with non-biblical sources? Are there not also hermeneutical issues with the dogma “outside the church there is no salvation” (let alone questions regarding its veracity)? And can all Christians accept Boniface’s interpretation of this? (“It is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”) As for textual concerns, what variants actually affect doctrine? (I assume you’re not agreeing with Bart Ehrman, whose critiques of the biblical text have been soundly refuted by a number of scholars). As for the canonical layer, I’d be happy to share what I’m writing on that subject separately. As for illumination, application and tradition, how does one choose between competing testimonies? (For example, is it reasonable to conclude that the Holy Spirit guided the seventh ecumenical council to reverse centuries of tradition – and Scriptural exhortation – strongly opposed to paying homage to images of saints?) As for the theological layer: in the light of the Reformers’ definition of sola scriptura, what do you think God left out of Scripture that He considered necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation?

    BTW – I’m glad you appreciated my quote from Peter Meiderlin, alias “Rupertus Meldinius” (the Latin anagram of his German name).


  26. Mike Field – I think you may have missed the distinction I made a few times between the popular notion of sola scriptura (which I think is either a misunderstanding or an abuse) and what a proper formula would be. It was my conclusion that a proper formula gets around most if not all of these issues. That probably makes most of the rest moot, but as to your specific questions:

    Yes, there are translation issues with non-biblical sources, but I am not sure what this does for ro against sola scriptura.

    As to “outside the church there is no salvation” I am not sure what Rome’s actual dogmatic understanding is, but I do not think it is a hermeneutical issue for us. If the Roman church says it, then it is up to them to explain it!

    I have not found textual variants to be very important (you can pretty much put me down for anything that is contrary to Bart E.). I listed this layer simply to point out its problem for the popular view of sola scriptura.

    As to the canonical layer, I’d be happy to see what you’re writing on that subject. I have read Allert, Bruce, Harris, Metzger, Williams, and the McDonald/Martin/Sanders book on the subject, and they all seem to agree to the basic facts.

    You asked, “As for illumination, application and tradition, how does one choose between competing testimonies?” Exactly. 🙂

    I am not sure where you got your information on the seventh ecumenical council’s relation to tradition. If there was a long history of iconoclasm I would be interested in reading about it, but I think the controversy was a controversy due to departure from tradtion on the iconclast’s part and not vice versa. Further, the Church came together and made its decision in much the same way as it did at Jerusalem, Chalcedon, or Nicea. If God stopped guiding the Church sometime during the ecumenical councils then arguments need to be brought forth for that, not just an appeal to “reasonableness.” Arianism would have ruled the day if simple majority was how God guided the Church (“Athanasius contra mundum” and all that).

    And Arianism servse as a good segue to your next issue. I do not think God left out of Scripture anything He considered necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation. But that is like saying a kitchen stocked with flour, eggs, milk, shortening, salt, and butter is all that is necessary for making pancakes. The problem is what to do with those materials. Arians were like cooks who combined the ingredients in such a way that waffles came out instead of pancakes. So I think the interpretation question remains open regardless of one’s formulation of sola scriptura.

  27. Mike,

    Mentioning the following concerning Luther illustrates another problem that Doug highlighted in his article, the canonical layer. You wrote:

    “It is important to remember that he (an Augustinian monk) followed the example of his forebearer: he affirmed the supremacy of Scripture but also appealed frequently to the church fathers (as did Calvin and other Reformers).”

    It’s hard to imagine Luther following his forebearer when his forebearer believed there were 73 books of Sacred Scripture as opposed to only 66, among other things. If he was following Augustine’s views on Sacred Scripture, why throw out 7 of the books?

    In addition, Catholics combine quotes, such as the one you gave concerning the superiority of Scripture, with other quotes made by the same church fathers which would seem to argue against sola scriptura. Hence, distinctions such as the material vs. formal sufficiency of Scripture.

    You wrote:

    “I could bring forward a number of quotes from early church fathers that sound very “sola scripturist,” but Roman Catholics are quick to deny they mean what they say because these church fathers also appealed to non-biblical sources.”

    Likewise, a Catholic could say:

    “I could bring forward a number of quotes from early church fathers that do not sound very “sola scripturist,” but Protestants are quick to deny they mean what they say because these church fathers also appealed to the superiority of Scripture.”

    Maybe this would illustrate another difficult layer in the process that Doug mentioned, the traditional layer.



  28. Hi Doug,
    Thank you for helping me realize that I was misreading your article – please accept my sincere apologies (I must have been interrupted on my first reading and didn’t finish!). I have no problem with your conclusion.

    On the 7th Ecumenical Council, centuries of prior tradition supported neither of the two alternatives considered by the council. By assuming only 2 possible positions, iconoclasm or paying homage to the images, the bishops ignored the option of accepting sacred art (even Moses supervised the creation and use of sacred art after delivering the 10 commandments) while guarding against idolatry (cf. Mic. 5:13). Roman Catholics frequently say that the Church decided that paying homage to sacred art became acceptable after the whole empire became Christian (therefore no weaker brother to worry about), and that the incarnation of Jesus (the image of God) made it acceptable to pay homage to images (a flawed analogy: an image made with human hands is not equivalent to Jesus as God’s uncreated image). I obviously disagree with both of these explanations.

    Brian, regarding Luther not accepting Augustine’s 73 books, it is true that he did not slavishly follow Augustine. Indeed on his central point of justification by faith alone, he acknowledged that Augustine had not arrived at the same conclusion. However, Luther included the Apocrypha in his Bible between the OT and NT, with the title: “APOCRYPHA, that is, Books which are not to be esteemed like the Holy Scriptures, and yet which are useful and good to read.” In other words, Luther followed the tradition of Jerome and other early church fathers who accepted these books “conditionally,” as did the Anglican Church (of which I am a member).


  29. Mike,

    I hope you are not implying (which I’m not implying that you were 🙂 ) that someone such as St. Thomas Aquinas was “slavishly” following Augustine when it comes to the canon.

    Also, ultimately, St. Jerome submitted to and was loyal to the bishops of Rome, something Luther as well as Anglicans did not and do not do. Hence, the Catholic understanding of Jerome as “Saint” Jerome.

    Of course, maybe I am yet again illustrating the difficulty with the traditional layer 🙂



  30. Pingback: A Protestant Decimates Sola Scriptura - Christian Forums

  31. Dear Doug et al,

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful post!

    I am a Protestant convert to the Catholic Church as of Advent 2000. In part it was the inherent contradictions and practical difficulties of Sola Scriptura that led me out of the Protestant “camp” and toward Catholicism. There were far more positives drawing me to the Church, I might add, but the manifest disunity wrought by sola scriptura, and the immense personal pressure it puts upon individuals to “get it right [i.e. their personal interpretation of scripture]” (after all, our salvation was on the line), led me to conclude that this doctrine was not of God but, ironically, one of the very “traditions of men” Christ warned us about in the Gospel.

    Your very thorough analysis shows what a true implementation of Sola Scriptura would mean for the average evangelical (the mainline protestant churches having largely surrendered any practical authority of Scripture in view of liberal, historical critical trends). Of course, such an approach is entirely untenable, indeed impossible for any one person– even the most highly educated. Life is simply too short.

    It also implicitly demonstrates the degree to which even very traditional, Sola Scriptura believing evangelicals are already relying on many extra-biblical authorities in their understanding of Scripture. Given this, the question becomes not whether to rely on extra biblical authorities, but–especially in light of St. Paul’s positive injunctions to follow authentic, apostolic tradition–which ones. Which, of course leads to the question of the church that Christ founded, “God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (cf. Tim 3:15)

    Finally, and I hope without any sense of triumph, for I know how painful it can be for a Protestant to consider these issues, I would ask this question of all my Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ reading this fine article:

    Do the personal demands and manifestly chaotic
    institutional results of Sola Scripture sound like the work
    of the Good Shepherd of the Sheep, Jesus Christ?
    Moreover, what of the weak in faith, the mentally
    handicapped, the illiterate; what hope have they of
    salvation if Sola Scriptura is true?

    Surely our Lord is more merciful than that…

    As a Catholic, I am happy to continue this discussion on or offline if I can be helpful in any way.


    Brian N.

    P.S. For a wonderful analysis and critique of this issue in the best possible light, I would commend the commend the book “The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism” by Louis Bouyer.

    “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you
    with knowledge and understanding.”
Jeremiah 3:14-16 (NIV)

  32. I have read some but not all of your post. I come away wondering why are you not Catholic?

  33. William – Briefly (and with much simplification), not all arguments that help lead to Rome lead there alone. For 1,000 years there was no such thing as Roman Catholicism per se. A Christian living prior to AD 1000 was just part of The Church. After the East/West split, The Church was divided into Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism – both of which recognize the other as being part of apostolic tradition. Some Anglican and other Protestant groups hold to the orthodox traditions as well. While I am convinced of the normative authority of this tradition (as were most of the Reformers), I am not as convinced by post-ecumenical developments. Thus, while I am convinced of where The Church is, I am not very sure where it isn’t. Until that changes, God help me, I can do no other. 🙂

  34. Nicely write up, Doug. I love that you are now known as the Protestant decimator of Sola Scriptura!

  35. Hi Doug,
    I forgot to respond to your comment on what I’m writing about canonicity. I have not been satisfied with the many approaches to the topic I’ve read (including some that you mention). My approach is to begin with the words of Jesus and inductively build a list of Scripture starting with the books He and His apostles (the founders of Christianity) explicitly affirmed – based on the historical records we have in the NT (not as Scripture, to avoid the self-referential problem). The second step is to define criteria for recognizing the boundaries of Scripture based both on Jesus’ words (e.g., Thy word is truth) and on what the previously affirmed books of Scripture define about Scripture (e.g., the word of the Lord remains forever). The third step is to apply these criteria of canonicity defined by Jesus and Scripture already affirmed to other books by evaluating both internal and external evidence. This approach confirms the canonical books and excludes the Apocrypha and other non-canonical books based on the criteria of canonicity.

    This will take a long time to complete, particularly because authenticity has become such a battle-ground in biblical studies, but I intend to see it through.


  36. Doug, not to quibble, but the Coptic Church might take issue with your statement that “A Christian living prior to AD 1000 was just part of The Church” as would the Armenian and other so-called Oriental Orthodox…but as you said you were simplifying. 🙂

    @Mike Field: For a broader discussion of the canon, which includes Mike’s opinion about what the right criteria is that will get you the Protestant books, as well as rebuttals to it, see the Called to Communion article on the Canon Question, written by then-Protestant Tom Brown, who subsequently entered full communion with the Catholic Church.

  37. To the two Brians,
    Brian #1, you are correct – I implied nothing about Aquinas slavishly following Augustine on the canon. Re: your comment on Jerome, I often hear this assertion but I’ve found no evidence that he ever recanted his “helmeted” OT canon. Yes, Jerome did favors for a couple of bishops by dedicating a day a piece to translate Judith and Tobit into Latin (the only two beyond the 39 books that he did so). As evidence that Jerome did not change his mind on the canon, he was quoted many times by those loyal to Rome (e.g., Cardinal Cajetan and the Glossa Ordinaria) as well as by the Reformers.

    Brian N.,
    I don’t follow your comment about a “true implementation of Sola Scriptura.” What Doug describes is a popular version, which is not at all consistent with the practice of the very Reformers who defined Sola Scriptura. I like the way James R. Payton interprets it in Getting the Reformation Wrong: Scripture is the only unquestioned religious source. Payton recognizes that 1) Scripture is not the only source of knowledge for our faith; 2) Scripture isn’t a source for many life topics (e.g., science); and 3) in topics of faith and practice other sources are fallible.

    On the topics of institutional diversity and the hope of salvation, Sola Scriptura does not assume that it is necessary for salvation that all Christians agree on everything – in fact, that is one of the beauties of the body of Christ: that it is composed of many diverse members, each carrying its own distinctives. For those who are mentally competent, a simple Trinitarian affirmation as one confesses in baptism is sufficient doctrinally (even your own Catechism says as much), and for practice – Jesus taught the first and second great commandments, “follow Me,” baptism, and “do this in remembrance of me.”

    I believe that Rome has erred by teaching as “apostolic traditions” things for which there is absolutely no evidence originated with the apostles or those to whom they passed on the deposit of faith, including things that conflict with centuries of apostolic teaching (e.g., paying homage to images). I further believe that the cults of the saints and the cult of Mary dishonor God (“Whom have I in heaven but You [Lord]?” Psalm 73:25).


  38. Devin Rose – I have an AO friend, and I simply delight in completely overlooking his tradition’s past hahahaha. You got it though, this is one reason why I made the “simplifying” qualification – I find that most people are barely aware of the 1054 schism and it just gets too confusing to add in the Orientals (plus they’re basically back with the EO now, so it’s less of an issue).

  39. Mike Field – Good luck on that canon project! I have a question though. If you should succeed in coming up with a non-question-begging way to induce/deduce the Protestant canon from principle(s), would you consider it a problem if that was not how the Church actually did it?

  40. Tacking on to Doug’s reply about the canon criteria:

    I recently read some of (Protestant apologist) Steve Hays’ booklet on how we can know the canon, and he comes up with some similar ideas to Mike’s: Start with the grain of what we “know” (somehow) to be inspired and then through inter-textual and intra-textual analysis of the different potential writings, inductively build up the canon. He makes an allusion to the scientific or mathematical idea of beginning with elementary axioms and then deriving everything else from them step by step.

    But as Doug points out, this wasn’t how the agent who discerned the canon–the early Church–actually did it. And the Bible doesn’t say that that’s how one should do it. And you have to bootstrap the process by somehow knowing at least one verse/passage/book that is inspired to start from–no fair trying to claim that “well, this book has been traditionally accepted by Christians” and starting from there.

    And then finally, there is no way this process can be mathematically inductive. Axioms are one thing–historical texts from thousands of years ago describing theological ideas are another. So ultimately you are adding the (large) potential for error in the subjective process where you try to figure out what book was quoted by whom and whether that person actually said that and whether the quotation means canonicity and blah blah blah.

    So, it doesn’t work. It would be cool if it did–kind of like the idea of self-assembling robots that I wanted to pursue in my electrical engineering/computer science study. Ultimately it just serves to buttress the canon one has already selected. The true process is: start with the Protestant canon and then come up with a criteria and add in your own subjective analysis to–voila!–give you the canon you had already accepted based on the question of authority.

  41. Hi Doug,
    You pose an interesting question about whether it would be a problem if my approach to recognizing Scripture differed from the way the Church actually induced/deduced the canon. I can think of a number of responses:

    1) When asked to find the answer to 4 x 2, is it a problem if one adds 2+2+2+2 instead of resorting to rote memory of the answer? If one can demonstrate that one’s answer is consistent with the facts and evidence, what difference does the method make?
    2) When asked how the Church actually induced/deduced the canon, there are several possible answers:
    a) Augustine said the churches should vote, but that never happened for the whole church. Regional votes occurred from the fourth century to the nineteenth century (when various Orthodox synods were still sorting things out – not consistent with each other, by the way), but there never was a unanimous answer. It seems that voting is not an appropriate method for discerning of truth.
    b) Rome sponsored the sectarian Council of Trent, leaving out Protestants and the Eastern Church, and a small group of bishops (not churches as Augustine had advocated) voted on the canon. Interestingly they accepted the Apocrypha with less than half of 45 votes (24 for, 15 against, 16 abstentions). Also, they didn’t even vote on all the books that the EO recognize today. Moreover, the question of distinguishing between the canon fidei and the canon morum was tabled. In other words, they decided not to rule on the viewpoint Jerome shared with many church fathers that the Apocrypha should be considered useful in the Church, but not for establishing doctrine. (See Hubert Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent. Vol. 2. Translated by Dom Ernest Graf. St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1961).
    c) Augustine also suggested that we include the Maccabees in the canon because of its wonderful stories about the martyrs, but why 1 Maccabees and why not 3 and 4 Maccabees? And why not include Foxe’s Book of Martyrs?
    d) The Reformers, like Cardinal Cajetan, seemed to accept Jerome’s position on the Apocrypha: they were not part of the Hebrew canon, ergo they should not be considered equal with the Hebrew books of the OT. One can infer from Josephus’ account that the first-century Jews recognized the same OT books we do, and according to Paul (Romans 3:2) we should consider their expertise on the subject.
    e) Re: the NT, in spite of disputes over some of the books, the Church in the fourth century accepted the 27 that all Christians today recognize. The reasons for those historical disputes must be examined one-by-one to assess the validity of the arguments for and against. The major unresolved issue (even today) is over the authorship of Hebrews. I don’t think it is necessary to believe that Paul is the author in order to include it in the canon (nor did Jerome), but some did.
    f) Re: the authorship of OT and NT books, recent scholarship has challenged almost all the historical assumptions, which were often crucial in discussions of canonicity. I have not been convinced by the modern arguments, so I intend to defend the historical assumptions of authorship that were key to accepting books as canonical (other than Hebrews).


  42. Whoops – I just noticed a typo on the vote at the Council of Trent: there were 55 total votes, 24 for, 15 against, and 16 abstentions.

  43. Hi Devin,
    Have you considered the importance the early church placed on the authenticity of the books it accepted into the canon? E.g., the Muratorian Canon rejected letters purported to be from Paul that it knew to be forgeries. I recall your own post a few months ago taking the position that 2 Peter is a forgery (pseudepigrapha). Yet you argue that the way the church decided which books to include in the canon is sacro-sanct? What do you really believe?


  44. Mike,

    A very quick response due to time restraints. For a perspective on St. Jerome ultimately staying loyal to the bishops of Rome, see this article.

    I hope you would admit that If St. Jerome did ultimately stay true to Rome, then the Anglican and the Lutheran appeals to St. Jerome to support their canons are flawed. For at a more foundational level (in a sense), Lutherans and Anglicans do not submit to the bishop of Rome.



  45. Mike,

    Try to take a step back and try to see the forest, instead of analyzing the bark on the trees.

    Augustine said this. Jerome said that. Athanasius said this. Trent’s numerical vote was such-and-such. Muratorian fragment includes X but not Y. Bark on the trees.

    The historical evidence, opinions of the Church Fathers, etc. are certainly important in that they can offer reasons for making the assent of faith, but without the belief that God guided the Church in discerning the canon, they cannot provide conscience-binding certainty in _any_ canon.

    Catholics have a principled reason for accepting their canon: Because they believe that God has guided the Church into all truth, understood as protection from error in her teachings on faith and morals.

    Protestants do not believe that God has protected the Church from error. And so to believe that God protected only the discernment of the canon from error but nothing else, is ad hoc.

    The early Church taught things that you believe are false (baptismal regeneration is one among many). So you have to provide a principled reason for knowing that God let the Church fall into heresy on one issue but not on another. Otherwise, it is just as likely that God protected the Church’s discernment of the truth of baptismal regeneration while letting her fall into error on the canon.

  46. Hi Mike,

    Just responding to your reply of a couple of days back. Thanks so much.

    My point about Sola Scriptura is that ideas have consequences far beyond what their innovators sometimes imagined (see note). Indeed it is well known that Luther was alarmed at the results of Sola Scriptura even in his own lifetime.

    In the life of the individual Protestant–at least one who takes the doctrine seriously as acknowledging Scripture alone as the only trustworthy authority for faith and life–this creates a great deal of pressure and anxiety. Why? Because he cannot trust any human authority, including (to be consistent) his own pastor, because they are only an intermediary between Scripture and and the individual Christian. Thus, he must allow God to speak to him directly through the words of Scripture and must be bound by what he hears and understands. He cannot consistently accept any other source of direction and honor the doctrine. This necessarily puts tremendous pressure on the individual believer to understand what God is saying in the Scripture, both in terms of faith and Christian living. For the child before the age of reason, or a mentally handicapped person, or for those of us, like me, who simply are not too bright, this can be a real spiritual crisis.

    Please note that I am not saying that God does not speak to us in the Scriptures. Indeed, in the Catholic tradition we have Lectio Divina, which, as I’m sure you know, is a prayerful and meditative reading of the Scripture designed to dispose us to this very thing. My point is that the personal devotions of every faithful Catholic are set within the teaching authority of the Church and are not opposed to it. It is a classic both/and situation, whereas Sola Scripture makes it an either/or proposition.

    As for your comment that only a simple Trinitarian confession would be necessary for the less intellectually well-endowed, I would submit that this is telling. We all know that the word “Trinity” or “Trinitarian” is nowhere found in the Bible. Of course, the teaching, indeed the reality of One God in Three persons is there to be discerned with the help of the Spirit in the Church. My point being that even in this case, we would be relying on the wisdom of the great Councils to help us draw proper boundaries around this great mystery. Again, it leads to the issue of authority, in this case the authority of the Councils who formulated the Creeds.

    As for your understanding of “paying homage to images” and the “cult of the saints,” it does make me wonder if you have read the Seventh Ecumenical Council or the Catechism (#1159, 1192, 2131; 61, 946-59) on these issues. We don’t “pay homage” to images, although we do honor those whom they represent. In the case of the saints, we do this in a way that does not constitute the worship due to God alone (latria) but with the veneration (dulia) justly due to someone who has run the race faithfully—with the constant aid of God’s grace (for apart from him we can do nothing)—and is now with Christ and the other “souls of the just made perfect” (cf. Heb. 12:23, see also Heb 12:1 and the voluminous Scripture reference to the aforementioned passages in the Cathechism). We also rightly ask for the intercession of such holy people, just as we would from a holy Christian man or woman still here with us on earth, for, as St. James says, “the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective.” (cf. Jas 5:16).
    Again, we have here demonstrated a dynamic in Protestant theology whereby things are opposed that should be held together: Scripture against the Church, the Saints against God, etc. The faith in its fullness holds these things in fruitful tension, for God is greater than our faint understanding of his Mysteries.

    Indeed, isn’t it just this sort of tendency to divide and to be “consistent” (in a narrow sense) that led to the great Christological heresies? For example: “Surely Christ cannot be both God and Man! No, he only appeared to be a man but was fully God. (Docetism)” or “Surely Christ was the greatest of all creatures, but utterly different in substance than the eternal God (Arianism).” The Incarnation, Jesus Christ, fully-God and fully-man, is a model for so many seeming contradictions in our faith. But I digress…

    Finally, I would recommend again the outstanding book by Bouyer “The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism.” It is especially good in that it shows that there is a way of understanding the great, positive assertions of the Reformers that is not at all contradictory with the Catholic faith (for example, there is a certain real primacy of Scripture in the life of the Church, for these truly are the words of God). However, these great insights and forces for renewal actually need the Church to preserve and foster them.

    The false oppositions mentioned above, he asserts, came from the poisonous influence of Nominalist philosophy so prevalent at that time, largely unrecognized and uncritiqued by the Reformers, and eventually rejected explicitly by the Church. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for any Christian, especially serious Protestants and Catholics seeking to understand what are the true sources of this sad division.

    Well, this has taken almost two hours to write! I must away to other things and wish you a grace-filled day. Take care and many blessings.

    Brian N.

    P.S. You might also be interested in this article of mine on Catholic Exchange on Music and the Incarnation which touches on many of the theological issues related to images.

    Note: It must be admitted that a Bible-alone system of authority, apart from the apostolic succession so clearly in evidence from the replacement of Judas by St. Mathias and onward in the Church—Clement, Ignatius, Irenaus, just to name a few—is indeed novel and internally inconsistent in light of the absence of a defined Canon in the early centuries of the Faith). BJN.

  47. Devin,
    As you probably know, there has been a long debate among RC theologians about what Christ meant when he said “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the Church. Your assertion that he meant infallibility rather than indefectability or something else lacks plausibility in light of history.

    I take it you have no problem accepting forged documents as worthy of being called “the word of God”?

  48. Hi Brian,
    I read Dom John Chapmman’s long tome about Jerome, but found no refutation of my previous statement that there is no evidence he ever recanted his “helmeted” OT canon. The article claims: “In the forty years since he wrote to St. Damasus, St. Jerome’s views do not seem to have changed. He was the protege of Damasus…”

    However, the article makes no effort to explain if Jerome was such a loyal protégé of Damasus why he refused to translate all of the Apocrypha into Latin. (BTW – I never claimed that Jerome was a Protestant – Chapman’s motivation for writing).


  49. Mike,

    Your response did not address the argument I made against Protestantism. I’ll not make further comments here unless and until you want to respond to it.

    I don’t know what makes you think I accept “forged” documents as the word of God. Maybe the 2 Peter thing, which I did not address. In any event, I didn’t address it because my belief on the canon, including 2 Peter, is quite simple: I accept the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church on the canon. 2 Peter is included in the Catholic canon. I accept it as inspired and inerrant, as I do the rest of the Bible.

  50. Hi Devin,
    I can agree with you that when the Body of Christ, the Church, as a whole, is in agreement, it reflects the guidance of the Holy Spirit “into all the truth.” However, when the Body of Christ is not united, we must exercise caution when promoting a particular position that conflicts with another strongly held position within the Church universal. For example, agreement on the Trinitarian doctrines expressed in the historic creeds is solid ground, but paying homage to images (which was enforced by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and which fomented 100 years of bloodshed between Christians) is not – nor can the latter claim to represent the teaching of the apostles.

    (BTW – I assume you recognize that EO’s and baptized Protestants are members of the Body of Christ.)


  51. Hi Brian,

    Another thought on Jerome:
    “Jerome to the most blessed pope Theophilus [of Alexandria]. The letter of your holiness has given me a twofold pleasure, partly because it has had for its bearers those reverend and estimable men, the bishop Agatho and the deacon Athanasius, and partly because it has shown your zeal for the faith against a most wicked heresy. … The presbyter Vincent has arrived from Rome two days ago and humbly salutes you. He tells me again and again that Rome and almost the whole of Italy owe their deliverance after Christ to your letters. Show diligence therefore, most loving and most blessed pope, and whenever opportunity offers write to the bishops of the West not to hesitate-in your own words -to cut down with a sharp sickle the sprouts of evil” (Epistle 88).

    The above letter indicates that Jerome recognized that Rome owed their deliverance from heresy to the patriarch of Alexandria. It should be recognized that for Jerome, loyalty to Rome’s episcopate did not imply dependence on Rome for all doctrinal matters. This is consistent with Jerome’s conclusion on the boundaries of the OT canon.


  52. Mike,

    Instead of getting into an even longer discussion regarding St. Jerome and his views of authority, Rome, the Deuterocanonicals, etc., if other people are interested in the relationship between St. Jerome to the Church, to get the Catholic point of view, one can read Chapman (as referenced above) as well as J. N. D. Kelly’s: Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies.

    Also, one can look at these links for an interesting take on some of the issues regarding St. Jerome.,%20%5B347-419/420%20A.D%5D

    Mike, while St. Jerome did not translate all of the Deuterocanonicals, he did translate a couple of them. And just for the sake of argument, even if everything you have said concerning St. Jerome is true, it still does not alleviate the Protestant difficulties concerning establishing and justifying their canon (see the article that Devin referenced — Called to Communion: The Canon Question), as well as dealing with some of the layers that Doug has mentioned … even if one does take the more classical, Reformed approach to Sola Scriptura.

    I’ll mention it one more time. Mike, I think our very brief discussion has at least illustrated a difficulty with the traditional layer, among others.

    At this point, I must bow out of the discussion. Thanks, Mike.

    Blessings to you,


  53. Thank you for the stimulating discussion! I’ve got to move on, but below are some responses for Brian N. (I don’t think responding further to Devin would be useful.)

    Can you provide citations to back up your assertion “that Luther was alarmed at the results of Sola Scriptura even in his own lifetime”? Your statement sounds like an over-simplified explanation of a much more complex issue. Of the various issues that Protestants have, it seems that Sola Scriptura gets more than its fair share of the blame. (I’ve even heard Sola Scriptura blamed for a church split over carpet colors!)

    Your claim that Sola Scriptura creates a great deal of pressure and anxiety does not reflect my own experience. Life is full of ambiguities – and I doubt that your priest is more infallible than mine (I’m Anglican). So why should I be more anxious than you? We all must learn to discern who and what to trust and how much, and for what things, but as for infallible teaching, I haven’t found a better source than Scripture. And please don’t argue that because some things are difficult to understand in the Bible, nothing in it is clear. The number and scope of your Church’s “infallible” statements don’t hold a candle to the many things that are clearly taught in the Scriptures.

    You fault me for citing Trinitarian doctrine because the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible? Do you think that coining a word to describe the essence of something that would otherwise require many words is a problem? In Genesis 1 God says “Let us make man in Our image . . . God created man in His own image. . . .” And Isaiah 48:12-16 declares: “I am the first, I am also the last … And now the Lord YHWH has sent Me, and His Spirit.” How about Jesus’ baptism when the Father spoke and the Spirit descended as a dove on the Son (Matt. 3:16-17)? Did not Jesus also command baptism in the name of the Trinity (even if he didn’t use the term? Cf. Matt. 28:19). And there is 2 Cor. 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” And Gal. 4:6 “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts. . . .” And Eph. 2:17-18 And He [Jesus] came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. Do you not recognize the Trinity in these passages? (If you want Scripture to further describe each person of the Trinity, I have a “boat-load.”) As for the hypostatic union of God and Man in the person of Jesus, there are many affirmations of both truths, including “the Word was God … and the Word became flesh” and “He had to made like his brethren in all things,” etc. Heresy results from distorting or ignoring/truncating or adding to what the Scriptures teach.

    Re: paying homage to images, the word used by the 7th Ecumenical Council, proskuneo, is misleadingly translated “venerate.” The word means “bow down” and was used by Jesus in John 4:24 re: worshiping God. According to the Council records: And [Theodosius said], “Let them who do not venerate [proskuneo] the holy and venerable images be anathema!” The Council of Trent later declared: “by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ; and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear.” It is deceiving to say that bowing down to images is not really what it looks like. Indeed, has God said, “You shall not bow down to the work of human hands” (cf. Exod. 20:3-4; Mic. 5:13)? Oh, but you say, “I’m not bowing down to images.” Really??? Daniel’s three friends didn’t see it that way. And it doesn’t help to say that an image and an idol are different things. Any image becomes an idol when one bows down to it. Your tradition is rooted in the pagan practice of bowing before the statue of a king; it is not found in any teaching or practice that can be traced to the apostles. The act of bowing down to images dishonors God.

    As for praying to the saints, it is deceiving to say that “praying to” really means asking the dead saint to intercede for you; and it is mistaken to believe that deceased saints can hear your prayers. As with bowing down to images, “praying to the saints” cannot be traced to the apostles’ teaching or practice. It an aberration of the faith handed down by the apostles. And don’t be fooled – not all “miraculous signs” come from God, cf. Deut 13:1-3; Matt. 7:22-23; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 13:12ff.

    Re: those things held in comman by Protestants and Roman Catholics, many books have been written, and we can be thankful that we share those things. Keep seeking the truth!


  54. Mike,

    Your reply did not answer Protestantism’s ad hoc position on the canon. Nonetheless, I’ll respond to what you said:

    “I can agree with you that when the Body of Christ, the Church, as a whole, is in agreement, it reflects the guidance of the Holy Spirit “into all the truth.” However, when the Body of Christ is not united, we must exercise caution when promoting a particular position that conflicts with another strongly held position within the Church universal.”

    Let’s go with your conception of what the Church is, composed of Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. Are they in agreement on the canon? No. Catholics and Orthodox (~1.5 billion Christians accept the deuterocanonicals as inspired). Protestants (~1 billion, assuming 0.5 billion Pentecostals in the Global South) do not.

    So “the Church” is not united on the canon. Yet Protestants vociferously “promote a particular position” that conflicts with “another strongly held position within the Church universal.” They have to, for sola Scriptura requires knowing the canon with conscience-binding certainty. Hence Protestantism fails your own test.

    What can we conclude? Perhaps the Holy Spirit didn’t lead the Church into all truth on the canon. Or perhaps one of these groups of Christians is wrong on the canon and did not listen to the Spirit correctly.

    This Protestant conception of the Church means that “unity” is only an invisible quality, unable to be seen or identified by Christians or non-Christians. It means that, for bedrock issues like the canon, God must not have led His Church into all truth, or kept His Church in a visible unity. This ecclesiology cannot be squared with John 17 and Christ’s call that we be “perfectly one,” as He and the Father are one.

  55. BTW – my previous comment about the number and scope of “infallible” statements by Rome is based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC 891, which claims “infallibility” a) when the “Roman Pontiff” makes an ex cathedra proclamation pertaining to faith or morals; and b) when “the body of bishops, together with Peter’s successor” propose a doctrine for belief as being divinely revealed through its supreme Magisterium in an Ecumenical Council.

    There are only 2 ex cathedra proclamations on record, and since there have been no truly Ecumenical Councils since Second Nicea in 787, the number and scope of “infallible” teachings by the Magisterium – according to the CCC – are limited to 9 sets of proclamations. Even granting RC reckoning of 21 Ecumenical Councils, the number and scope of “infallible” teachings remain small. Furthermore, beyond such “infallible” teachings the CCC claims nothing uniquely possessed by Roman Catholic clergy regarding truth: CCC 892 claims divine assistance “in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium” for “teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. Better understanding than what – than what they previously taught? This claims no more than what Scripture promises all Christians: that the Holy Spirit will assist them to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals, particularly those who diligently meditate on and study His special revelation in Scripture (see 1 Cor. 2:12ff).

    Devin, I can only suggest you consider Eph 4:13 – “until we all attain to the unity of the faith.” Paul recognized that it was an unrecognized goal in his day, as it remains today.


  56. Whoops, correction: Devin, I can only suggest you consider Eph 4:13 – “until we all attain to the unity of the faith.” Paul recognized that it was an unrealized goal in his day, as it remains today.

  57. Mike,

    I don’t see how that verse says what you think it says.

    “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”

    If, as you claim, this passage means that unity is the goal but it was not reached then and has never been realized, is it also true that knowledge of the Son of God is unrealized? That mature manhood is unrealized? Such that we are still children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, etc.?

    I’m no exegete, but this doesn’t seem to wash. It seems to me that Paul is exhorting the Christians to use their different gifts and callings to build up the body of Christ, something which, yes, will continue to be worked on, but also something that can and is realized now. God wants us to be mature men, not children.

    In any event, I would take a step back and point out that you chose this verse to claim Christ’s call that we be one in the truth is a pipe dream that is unachievable. By what authority do you claim that you are interpreting the Scriptures here accurately?

  58. Awesome article Doug! Also, kudos to everyone who wrote their own articles in the comments sections. It is going to take a couple weeks to absorb all of these comments.

  59. A few more thoughts on the canon:
    1) There never has been universal agreement on the canon, so if it is a problem for unity now it is not a new problem. Even just prior to the Reformation Cardinal Catejan followed Jerome’s canon.
    2) Prior to Augustine, no church father published a canon including the 7 books he added. In fact the predominant thought was that one should ask the Jews what books they considered to be Scripture (a perfect application of Paul’s teaching in Romans 3:2).
    3) The fact that the OT canon diverged into its present streams is evidence that the Church “moved the ancient boundaries set by the fathers” (see Proverbs 22:28). It was not right to move the boundaries of Scripture established by the Jews who were entrusted with the oracles of God.
    4) It is interesting that the two branches of the Church which claim infallibility disagree on the boundaries of Scripture.
    5) It is interesting that only the books of the Protestant canon are common to all branches of Christianity.

    It looks like the only unity among all Christians on the canon is in the Protestant canon.


  60. Mike,

    “1.) There never has been universal agreement on the canon, so if it is a problem for unity now it is not a new problem.”

    There wasn’t universal agreement on Christ’s divinity and consubstantial union with the Father in 325 AD, either. Arius’ bishops and followers continued their dissent from the Church and spread the heresy far and wide. It went on and on for many centuries, and even today there are heresies that deny Christ’s divinity. Universal agreement is not the requirement for truth or the unity in Christ’s Church.

    “2) Prior to Augustine, no church father published a canon including the 7 books he added. In fact the predominant thought was that one should ask the Jews what books they considered to be Scripture.”

    I haven’t looked that up, but let’s assume it’s correct. So what? No Church Father until Athanasius in the latter half of the 4th century published a canon with the correct twenty-seven book list of the New Testament. For Protestants that poses a problem, but not for Catholics. And don’t forget that Athanasius included at least one deuterocanonical book (other writings of his even include more of them) and he excluded Esther.

    “3) The fact that the OT canon diverged into its present streams is evidence that the Church “moved the ancient boundaries set by the fathers” (see Proverbs 22:28). It was not right to move the boundaries of Scripture established by the Jews who were entrusted with the oracles of God.”

    The Jewish people didn’t have a closed canon. And once Christ came, they Jews who rejected Christ had no authority to decide the canon.

    “4) It is interesting that the two branches of the Church which claim infallibility disagree on the boundaries of Scripture.”

    I assume you mean the Catholics and Orthodox? I didn’t know the Orthodox claimed infallibility. But even if they did, I’ve heard conflicting things. Some Orthodox say that their canon is the same as the Catholic one. Some say they add a few more books (3 & 4 Maccabees, maybe Psalm 151), but others told me that they don’t view those on the same level as Scripture. In any event, it only provides more problems for Protestantism, because the Orthodox lend further evidence against Calvin’s self-authentication of the canon.

    “5) It is interesting that only the books of the Protestant canon are common to all branches of Christianity. It looks like the only unity among all Christians on the canon is in the Protestant canon.”

    I mean, give me a few minutes to start a new “branch” on the Christian tree that only accepts the four gospels as inspired. “Hey! only my canon is common to all ‘branches’ of Christianity, so mine must be right.” Negative. Lowest-common denominator is not the standard of truth.

    I’ll note again that you haven’t explained how Protestantism can demonstrate conscience-binding certainty in their canon without being ad hoc. I don’t expect an answer, as I looked for one as a Protestant and was dismayed when I didn’t find it. Then I became Catholic and for ten years have still not found one.

  61. Hi Devin,
    I take it your definition of unity doesn’t mean that everyone is of one mind?
    Does unity in Christ mean loyalty to Him or does it require loyalty to an institution?
    Do you believe that your institution is uniquely of one mind with Christ? (see my earlier post on infallibility)
    What are the implications of the great schism in 1054? Did Christ’s prayer for unity fail?

    Why is it a problem that it took time before the church fathers agreed on the 27 books? (BTW – Clement of Alexandria recognized all 27 as normative almost 2 centuries before Athanasius; and only 3 church fathers before Athanasius published a NT canon, and one of them, Eusebius, merely reported what books others disputed – but there have always been disputes about the Deuteros, so why point fingers at the NT?).

    BTW – I think you’re confused about Athanasius including an Apocryphal book in his canon. He was trying to follow Josephus’ 22 book formula, but he separated Ruth from Judges, and as a result, omitted Esther.

    On the Jews not having a closed canon, you’re mistaken. Josephus clearly says that from birth the Jews were taught their “divine” books, which he numbered at 22 (combining “the 12,” Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, etc.). There is zero evidence that the Jews ever considered any books outside of those 22 to be of “like authority” (in Josephus’ words). Your friends who argue for a Jewish “Alexandrian canon” should read what the scholars have to say about that fiction.

    On the Orthodox canon, they definitely include books that the Council of Trent did not vote on. I agree with you that Calvin was overly optimistic that all of the Scriptures carry the evidence in themselves in such a way that anyone can recognize them. That, however, does not prove that your Church has correctly identified the canon.

    I haven’t responded to your table pounding on “conscience-binding certainty in the canon” because the statement is incoherent to me. What does make sense to me is that every book in the Protestant canon is either affirmed by Jesus or His disciples or it can be inferred from His words and/or can be shown to be consistent with what those books teach about Scripture. In contrast, you defend books that are demonstrably inconsistent with the character of God, who cannot lie and who has warned His people not to add to or take from or change His words. I would have to sacrifice my integrity to accept your canon; my conscience is clear with the Protestant canon.

    In Christ,

  62. Mike,

    I’ll let your last comment be the last word in our discussion. Certainly I would dispute the things you say, but your last paragraph accusing me of table-pounding indicates to me that we will not make further progress.

    As always, I wish you well and pray you will continue seeking the truth in its fullness. God bless!

  63. I apologize, Devin, if I over-reacted – on CtC I was periodiclly baffled to receive that same feedback. You did repeatedly bate me to answer, so I answered as honestly as I could. It is because of my conscience that I cannot accept your canon (I’ve studied this subject enough to be convinced that certain books that you insist deserve “conscience-binding certainty” do not measure up.

    I do wish some Roman Catholic would answer my comments about infallibility – why not you?


  64. Mike, I certainly forgive you. And please forgive me for any trespasses here.

    Regarding the Church Fathers and the canon, specifically whether any Church Father exactly specified the Protestant canon, I suggest going over to this article and commenting:

    Regarding infallibility, I read through your comments but do not know what question you were asking (or argument you were making). Is it that the number of infallible teachings of the Catholic Church is (relatively) small?

    Of course I would dispute your opinion that there have been no ecumenical councils since the 8th century.

  65. Thank you, Devin. No hard feelings here.

    The point on the canon is that the church took hundreds of years to get to 90% agreement. That 90% common ground has stood the test of time, but the 10% continues to be disputed. How do we get past our historically entrenched differences? I’m merely suggesting that what is commonly accepted as Scripture provides criteria that should be used to evaluate the 10% that is still disputed.

    On infallibility, the point is that Rome has no fundamental advantage on questions of interpretation of Scripture over any other branch of the Church – we all enjoy the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and even your claim of 2 infallible ex cathedra declarations and your 21 councils don’t address huge areas of interpretation.


  66. Here’s an interesting historical perspective on the Protestant canon: For Luther, the recovery of the original text was the key to the recovery of original Christianity. This reflects the intellectual climate of the Renaissance: preference for the recovered Greek text over the Latin Vulgate.

    Hence, Luther also sought the original Hebrew texts of the OT and relegated the Apocrypha to an inferior status (although his Bible included the books between the OT and NT). In doing so, Luther sided with Paul in Romans 3:2, and also with the early church fathers prior to Augustine who almost universally recognized the Jews as the authorized keepers of the OT canon.

    See: Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 68.

  67. Invoking Luther seems especially dangerous in canon discussions. Luther sought to remove canonical books from Scripture when he could not square them with his new found doctrinal perspectives. While the book of James is especially memorable as Luther’s “epistle of straw,” he was also suspicious of Hebrews, Revelation, and others. That is hardly reminiscent of the “ad fontes” approach of the Renaissance humanists.

  68. You’re right, Doug. Luther often was a “loose canon” (and he did later eat his words about James). Luther just didn’t know when to stop sometimes! By creating his own criteria for value of Scripture within a Scripture he violated his own principle – Scripture does not teach the “canon within a canon” that Luther invented.

    Agreeing with Luther on recovering the original texts, however, does not by any stretch mean that one must agree with everything he taught or believed. Paul’s advice seems to apply here – “examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good.”

    Whether you agree with Luther on recovering the original texts or not, the insight by Johnson is interesting.


  69. Responding to a comment near the very top of the thread: People sometimes ask, “Why does and an intelligent, informed, and faith-filled Christian remain outside of the Catholic Church?” And I’ve never heard anyone say, “Because grace is also required.” But, I think that is an appropriate answer.

    I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the deeply substantial reality of the Church belongs to the category God’s Self Disclosure, and we can’t believe that without His assistance (the infused, theological virtue of faith). By human effort alone, the best a Christian can do is stare at an ever-growing mass of “converging and convincing arguments” and arrive at the conclusion that the Catholic Church is “probably” what she says she is.

    But, nobody’s going to uproot their life based on a “probability”. Are they? That takes divine intervention. And, it seems to me that God gives that that little nudge completely without warning at a time according to His designs. The best a person can do is dispose himself for grace in general and take what comes.

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  71. Mike,

    “I’m merely suggesting that what is commonly accepted as Scripture provides criteria that should be used to evaluate the 10% that is still disputed.”

    But let’s say for the sake of argument, I refuse to spot you “what was commonly accepted as Scripture”? I refuse to give you those books because, under Protestantism, serious errors were made in many doctrines that were “commonly accepted” even early on in the Church.

    This is why I always return to the ad hoc: there must be a principled reason for knowing God protected from error that which “was commonly accepted” on one doctrinal issue but not on another.

    Regarding infallibility, there is some truth to what you say, in the sense that there are not fifty thousand infallible decrees on as many verses of Scripture. It just doesn’t work that way. And so the bounds of dogma are fairly wide, but also specific. There are the decrees of the Pope ex cathedra and the ecumenical councils (whose canons the pope approved), but also there are the irreformable teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

    Another benefit of the Catholic Church is that she is a living voice that can address new problems, heresies, and continue to clarify teachings.

    All Christians may have the Holy Spirit, but that does not mean that God does not want all His children to be in full communion with His Church. Nor does it mean that all follow the Holy Spirit in the ordinary way in which He works (which is, through Christ’s Church and not in opposition to her).

  72. Doug, could you affirm this statement without mental reservation, “The Scriptures… they alone are of supreme and final authority in faith and life.”

  73. Hi Devin,

    Could you explain further:
    . . . also there are the irreformable teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

    I don’t see “irreformable teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium” in the CCC (e.g., 891, 892). All I see outside of 891 is “better understanding”

    On “common ground” will you not admit sufficient testimony from Jesus re: the canonicity of the books they quoted as Scripture, as normative? Are you not also willing to admit reasonable “common ground” on the additional sources His disciples quote as normative? Your rules sound like they would prevent you from claiming any reasonable understanding of history.


  74. Maranda,

    I can affirm the statement “The Scriptures alone are of supreme and final authority in faith and life.” I do not think any Christian should have a problem with that per se. The issue is whether or not there are other authorities, even those that are “below” Scripture, that are still binding. For example, a king might be the supreme and final authority over his realm, but that does not mean that there are not other authorities in the land. A better analogy for what we are talking about here might be the constitution of the USA. That document cannot be (at least in theory) be breached, but there are multiple authorities between the common man and that document (especially since a document cannot actually rule). Further, many of those authorities have the power to interpret that document and their decsions are binding. In that sense they are authoritative as well – for those who are not in authority do not have the power to reinterpret that document in any way they see fit.

    Again, sola scriptura is a fine theological position as far as locating the final, binding authority of the Christian faith. But once we get beyond that affirmation to actually employing the Sciptures, we cannot avoid other authorities. The question then becomes a matter of which authorities one will also accept.

  75. Doug, I understand your response, and you for your affirmation. But, in keeping with your above article, do you think you are affirming that same statement in accordance with the founders of the school you teach at, and the doctrinal statement they affirm?

  76. Maranda,

    I cannot speak for what the drafters of SES’s doctrinal statement meant – I only know what they wrote (and as our own Dr. Thomas Howe likes to say, “The meaning is in the TEXT!”). Further, SES offers classes that deal with the layers that I mentioned. If they weren’t there, or were not acknowledged, those courses would not be necessary. Since the SES statement affirms Scriptures’ ultimate authority, and I agree with that, then I can affirm it.

  77. I’m not talking about an intentionalist theory of meaning, so you can disregard that. And, a formal cause of meaning, as which your Thomistic positon would espouse, argues in accordance with the historical-grammatical understanding of interpretation. Hence, you can know what the words say, but the framers give the context of those words. I could say “look at those gay men” and that could grammatically mean the same thing, unless one refers to the historical context.

    And, I would argue, in keeping with the Protestant tradition that the institution you teach at, that the original historical conext of the term “authority” does not mean layers of authority. I say that, because your school was founded upon the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, of which one of your founders was a drafter of that committe, and they were very much opposed to layers of meaning (or a leaning towards an Anglo-Catholic understanding of authority, Scripture, and tradition).

    Again, your approach is much closer to George Lindbeck’s understanding of meaning, layers, and authority than the Evangelical Protestant tradition that you were trained in and teach at.

  78. Maranda,

    I have not read Lindbeck, so I cannot comment on your assertion. However, since you are trying to contrast my understanding with “Evangelical Protestant tradition that you were trained in” I will comment on that.

    While Aquinas may be helpful for hermeneutics, if someone uses words incorrectly there is still an issue. My article dealt with what is a misunderstanding of the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. So when I read the SES doctrinal statement, I am reading it according to what sola scriptura actually teaches. It is not my problem if “one of our founders” misunderstood or misrepresented it (although using traditional language to communicate non-traditional ideas is not unheard of by at least one of “one of our founders”).

    Further, no one at SES, to my knowledge, has ever held a signer accountable to what one of SES’s founders might have been thinking when the statement was written. Now, if SES chooses to make the doctrinal statement more detailed in this area, and chooses the more problematic formula (which it won’t if it remains consistent with its Thomism or with classical Protestantism) then I would have to deal with that at that time.

    Also, the previous points may be moot if you want to use the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as your historical guide. It says the following with regard to Scripture’s authority:

    WE AFFIRM that the Scriptures are the supreme written norm by which God binds the conscience, and that the authority of the Church is subordinate to that of Scripture. WE DENY that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.

    Yup, that’s what the traditional Protestant doctrine is, and that is what I affirmed.

  79. Doug,

    Thanks for the post!
    You have done a great job in analysing this often difficult topic.
    I feel like your average-Evangelical-in-America-today except I’m the average-Orthodox-in-Australia-today. Your ten points really identify to me why we need to have a church that accommodates both traditions and the Bible. I don’t read Greek or Hebrew event at a basic level, let alone understand the finer points of the language. I don’t know the culture, traditions, context of most of the biblical narratives.

    But what I do have is a church that does understand the language, culture, traditions and context of the Bible. I depend on the church to provide me this information.
    I can only do my best with the resources I have, my education, my intellect, available time, my own zeal. I love reading the Bible but the Bible is not always easy to understand especially in the 21st century. But when I don’t understand a particular text I turn to the church for answers. When I say the church I mean the fathers of the church, I turn to the early apologist like Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Cappadocian Fathers, Desert Fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, Athanasius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Maximos the Confessor, John of Damascus, John Climacus, Symeon the Theologian and all the others I failed to mention.

    Without these fathers the church does not have the necessary tools or resources to understand where it came from and what its mission is now. Most of the Trinitarian Theology and Christology can be attributed to these fathers who defended the church from all the countless heresies. It was the fathers who created and defended the bible canon. If you take out this tradition you don’t have the fullness of the church, you only have part of the story.
    The Bible is God’s authoritative witness of Himself. But it’s the church that needs to interpret the scriptures. Interpretation of scripture outside the tradition of the church is a dangerous thing and that’s why we currently have 20,000+ denominations.
    In Christ

  80. Doug – great systematic breakdown of the real and basic issues concerning the dependency on Sacred Scripture alone to the damaging exclusion of 2000yrs of God’s revelation and teaching authority given to the Church (Sacred Tradition/Magisterium). I would guess that Luther and Calvin didn’t understand what they were releasing when they traded a priestly magisterium for a scholastic magisterium. They didn’t understand that personal interpretation would ultimately remove the authority of the Scriptures and trade it for the authority of personal interpretation. If each person is the ultimate authority then the “I believe” trumps the “We believe” of our most ancient creeds of faith. Unity of faith and communion of saints is continually called for by Christ, the Apostles and the Church Fathers….that all may be one. John 17:21-23

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