The Tunnel Vision of Sola Scriptura

I was surfing around the net, as I am wont to do now and then, and I came across a piece of anti-Catholic rhetoric which struck me as being particularly ignorant and totally blinkered. The site was a Baptist blog aimed, it seems, at the youth; the blog in question was quite old, July 16th, 2008 and highlighted an article by arch-fundamentalist John MacArthur. The article, “Is Roman Catholicism biblical?” preposterously poses the condescending and rather arrogant questions:

“Is Roman Catholicism simply another facet of the body of Christ that should be brought into union with its Protestant counterpart?” and “Is Roman Catholicism simply another Christian denomination?”

If memory serves, Protestantism and consequently MacArthur’s own theological and liturgical direction, only came into existence after the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500’s, Catholicism on the other hand can trace it’s roots to Christ through the Apostle Peter, more than 1500 years earlier than Protestantism! So who should be brought into union with who? Prior to the Reformation, all followers of Jesus Christ were simply known as Christians in the universal or ‘Catholic’ church. In fact this was the case for longer than Protestantism and it’s ‘invented’ doctrine of Sola Scriptura have been in existence. Many have come to realise that, in a contemporary society, Protestantism must be seen as a myriad of different churches, all with different views on salvation and theology in general and all convinced that they alone are right.

And why shouldn’t they be – according to Protestant doctrine “Each individual has the final prerogative to decide for himself what the correct interpretation of a given passage of Scripture means, irrespective of what anyone-or everyone-else says.” [1] This being the case, any reactionary statements such as those opined by Mr. MacArthur, amount to hypocrisy ~ for by his own doctrine each individual (corporate or otherwise, including the Catholic Church) has the right to define the correct determination of scripture! Of course this is why the Protestants are so splintered – approximately 32,000 Protestant denominations some years ago and probably more now. [2] – who is right and who is wrong? Where does the average churchgoer go to to find the correct version of Christ’s teaching?

Of course it is this very chaos of scriptural interpretation which puts the lie to Sola Scriptura ~ Christ, the Word Incarnate taught as the ultimate Magisterium to His apostles. The apostles then became the Magisterium to the church in formation, with Peter first among equals. To my mind Sola Scriptura is the brainchild of some early Catholics who disagreed with the church’s teaching ~ this included the threefold approach to scriptural interpretation used by the ‘Church’ since the earliest of times – Tradition, Magisterium and Scripture. As James Akin so aptly clarifies, Scripture and Tradition provide the data required to carry out theological investigation and the Magisterium serves to authoritatively formulate correct interpretation.[3] Because the Reformers held to different teachings to those of Tradition and of the Magisterium, these two legs of the trifold formula had to be rejected and a doctrine developed based on scripture alone, thus allowing the Reformers to formulate their own doctrinal belief – Sola Scriptura, the invention which sparked Protestantism.

An interesting observation of Mr Akin’s is: Protestants have to espouse and affirm the sub Sola Scriptura principle of Private Judgement in order for the pastor to continue his exposition of the scripture to his flocks of a Sunday morning! For if this were not the case, who would he refer to and if required to defer to a higher Magisterial authority, he would be debunking the very foundations of Protestantism. Of course herein lies their dilemma, to allow that they themselves can interpret scripture to their congregation, they must defend and profess the efficacy of private judgement. But if all of the congregation were to adhere to this principle, arguing and insisting on their interpretation being taken as the correct and accurate version, pandemonium would follow – whose version would they take as being authoritative; they would doubt their own, their pastors, why – because there is no single point of authority such as the apostles to the early church. So in practice private judgement and revelation is discouraged, insisting that the congregant adhere to the beliefs of the congregation for fear of the church splintering and one can see this happening all the time, in particular in the independent churches. 

Imagine if one of Mr MacArthur’s flock, in the middle of his sermon on creation, stood up and publically debunked his interpretation, insisting that Genesis was a) probably influenced by the story of Gilgamesh and b) allegorical, based on proven scientific evidence to the contrary and which would be absolutely contrary to MacArthur’s own belief and that of his church! How long could they allow this congregant to espouse his own private judgement before his views became more influential? Not long, I would surmise! This is a simplistic view I know but I think Akin sails pretty close to the truth here.

The Catholic position of basing their exposition of scriptures on the pillars of the Magisterium, Tradition and the Scripture itself, for the reasons mentioned above, proves an efficacious and  crucial means of centring the community.

Thus, in my opinion, the ill conceived notion of Sola Scriptura leads to a blinkered and self defeating approach to the pastoring of Christ’s flock!


  1. The Practical Problems of Sola Scriptura ~ James Akin © 1996
  2. This figure is sourced from the ‘World Christian Encyclopaedia (2001, 2nd edition)’. It is pertinent to note that this figure is made up as follows: 9000 ‘Protestants’ + 22000 ‘Independents’ (also adherents of Sola Scriptura so Protestants but for a name!) + 168 Anglican
  3. Sola Scriptura and Private Judgement ~ James Akin © 1997

About Anthony

I am a married Catholic who is interested in Theology, History, Philosophy and the search for truth. I also have a penchant for photography.
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