That Holy Scripture is central to the tenets of the Christian faith is not disputed; that it is the sole arbiter of the Christian faith is. Sola Scriptura is a cornerstone of Protestant theology, but it is, in my opinion, a fundamental misconception of Protestant biblical theology. Why?
This is the question that I would like to discuss in response the latest Alpha subject – Why and How Should I Read the Bible? This discussion will not argue on the spiritual aspect of biblical reading, covered under such subject headings as the Catholic practice of Lectio Divina, but rather on the more controversial subject, that of the Protestant doctrine of Scripture Alone!
First let us distinguish between two important aspects of scripture: 1) the more arcane characteristic referring to the intrinsic knowledge conveyed by scripture and, 2) the actual written word, more commonly referred to as the biblical word or the written word.
What is sola scriptura and what does it mean?
- Wikipedia describes Sola Scriptura as – “… the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness.”
- Apologist, James Akin says of Sola Scriptura, it: “…teaches that every teaching in Christian theology (everything pertaining to “faith and practice”) must be able to be derived from Scripture alone.”
Basically, sola scriptura means that any theological or religious understanding can and must only be based on scripture. It must exclude any external influence such as a centralised interpretive authority or traditional understandings etc.
This disallows any tradition handed down or any binding authority such as the Catholic Magisterium from aiding or augmenting scriptural instruction. Indeed Akin says of the Protestant dilemma, [i]“If Tradition or a Magisterium could bind the conscience of the believer as to what he was to believe then the believer would not be looking to Scripture alone as his authority.” This, in my mind, is rather convenient and also smacks of a central Magisterium(!) in itself, dictating how and what the believer should believe!
Obviously in disallowing a central interpretive authority (the Magisterium) to guide the ordinary believer, Sola Scriptura must, by necessity, advocate a right to absolute private judgment.[ii] And as regards this dogma, as many as are adherents, is as many different ‘truths’ which are espoused. Taking it to a farcical level, even in one parish let alone one religious denomination, there could be many versions of the truth!
Make sense – no of course not!
In a sense this multiplicity of truths is indistinguishable from relativism, believing that the truth is whatever the private judgment of the individual conceives it to be! That cannot be true, for truth cannot be many things, it can only be one – one interpretation. This does not dispute that truth can be hard to find or that people have got it wrong but there can only be one truth. It follows then that this must be the same for the interpretation of scripture – excluding private abstract meaning there can only be one specific public meaning.
Then what other source is required for the determination of the truth: one we have already heard – is the magisterium, but the other we have not – tradition. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes tradition in the following manner:
“The word tradition (Greek paradosis) in the ecclesiastical sense, which is the only one in which it is used here, refers sometimes to the thing (doctrine, account, or custom) transmitted from one generation to another; sometimes to the organ or mode of the transmission (kerigma ekklisiastikon, predicatio ecclesiastica)” [iii]
‘Transmitted from one generation to the next’, a pretty obvious and innocuous statement on the face of it but which, in the context our story, was partly the cause of the Protestant schism within Christianity. To be fairly banal, do you not possess knowledge which was passed from your parents to you, will you not pass this on to the next generation? This information is in addition to the more formal knowledge and understanding of life that we receive as instruction but is just as vital.
Likewise, the church has passed down apostolic and post-apostolic knowledge over the eons, from the apostles to the early church fathers (think of the Didache, the Shepard of Hermas, Irenaeus, Origen and many more) and beyond. Although these and other traditions were not included into the canon of scripture, this does not mean that they have no value; they represent the collective wisdom of the past.
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. [iv]
says Paul to the Corinthians.
Paraphrasing Catholic Answers [v] provides some context to the preservation and passing on of apostolic tradition:
On the preservation of Apostolic Tradition, Paul instructs Timothy:
2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. [vi]
Paul recognized the need for tradition to be passed on from generation to generation, ensuring that the true teaching of Christ was not lost. Likewise, the early Church Fathers recognized the same necessity. The following excerpts are taken from Catholic Answers article on Apostolic Tradition: [vii]
“As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same” (Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189]).
Clement of Alexandria
“Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from loss the blessed tradition” (Miscellanies 1:1 [A.D. 208]).
“Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition” (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]).
Sola-Scriptura pre-supposes ready access to the scriptures, it pre-supposes the individuals capacity for theological thought and application in interpreting those scriptures and it pre-supposes the individuals literacy! Are these the pre-requisites for salvation? I would hope not and if they are, humankind through history would be in a rather sorry state! Why? – up until (and probably including) the 1800’s the average person was illiterate, had no access to books (let alone bibles) or theological training – most probably because of their economic predicament. Thus the majority would rely on verbal communication, interpretation by application of tradition, visual aids depicting stories and traditions (think of the stained glass windows in churches) and a trust in the values of the local vicar/priest!
Dei Verbum the Catholic Church’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation ratifies the relationship between scripture and tradition as:
“There is one source of revelation, God, with two modes of transmission” – “Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture … For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity …”[viii]
In conclusion, I would posit that scripture is of prime importance but that it can and must be augmented by authentic tradition. When reading the bible and generally studying the Christian way of life and its mores, cognisance must be taken of both scripture and any related and accepted tradition, such as the church fathers etc. All of this must be governed by a central authority vested with the responsibility of providing a true public interpretation of God’s Revelation.
- Akin, J. (1996). The Practical Problems of Sola Scriptura. Retrieved September 2, 2013, from EWTN: http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/PRACTICL.HTM
- Wikipedia. (2013, June 9). Sola Scriptura. Retrieved September 2, 2013, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sola_scriptura&oldid=559085188
- Akin, J. (2013). Sola Scriptura and Private Judgment. Retrieved September 3, 2013, from JimmyAkin.com: http://jimmyakin.com/library/sola-scriptura-and-private-judgment
- Bainvel, J. (1912). Tradition and Living Magisterium. (New York: Robert Appleton Company) Retrieved September 3, 1913, from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15006b.htm
- Catholic Answers. (1996-2013). Apostolic Tradition. Retrieved September 4, 2013, from Catholic Answers: http://www.catholic.com/tracts/apostolic-tradition
- The Roman Catholic Church. (1965, November 18). Dei Verbum. Retrieved September 4, 2013, from The Holy See: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html
[i] (Akin, The Practical Problems of Sola Scriptura, 1996)
[ii] “This was a question put by Catholics to Luther and the other Protestants, who answered that, in the absence of some group of Christians who were divinely commissioned with the task of formulating the material of theology, the individual himself must be divinely commissioned with this task. Thus the doctrine of an absolute right to private judgment–to deciding for oneself what the correct interpretation of Scripture is–was created.”
(Akin, Sola Scriptura and Private Judgment, 2013)
[iii] (Bainvel, 1912)
[iv] 1 Corinthians 11:2
[v] (Catholic Answers, 1996-2013)
[vi] 2 Timothy 2:2
[vii] (Catholic Answers, 1996-2013)
[viii] (The Roman Catholic Church, 1965)