The fatal seduction of Sola Scriptura is that all one needs to know about what to believe and how to practice it is explicitly contained in Scripture.
The emphasis on explicit is key. That’s because it is possible to interpret Sola Scriptura as merely dictating that the principles of orthodoxy and orthopraxy are embedded in the Bible. But, in practice, Sola Scriptura rapidly becomes something else: a nefarious form of fundamentalism which teaches that it’s not just sufficient to draw out principles in the Bible — one most also cite its explicit statements in order to justify a belief or practice. (For more on this, see Jimmy Akin’s explanation.)
What’s not in the Bible
Many people claim to uphold Sola Scriptura but their actions say otherwise. Here’s why: some of the most basic things Christians say and do are not explicitly sanctioned by the Bible.
Our first clue is the very vocabulary of the faith. Consubstantial, or homoousios in the Greek, cannot be found in the New Testament. Neither can these words: Trinity, person, Incarnation, or redemption. Although you might find the latter in some translations, the Greek word really means ransom. Not even our English word God is biblical. In the Greek it is theos.
But, of course, we can translate the original words into our own. Or not? Because sometimes we retain the original terms: amen, hosanna, alleluia, Satan, and Eden are directly transliterated. Perhaps I am being overly facetious, one might say, to harp on such trivial non-issues. But that’s exactly what legalistic fundamentalism can do, and often does.
But there’s more. The practice of attending church on Sundays, the date of Christmas, and the way we celebrate Christmas are not in the New Testament. For some Protestants this is a real issue. Seventh Day Adventists meet on Saturdays and the Puritans banned Christmas.
Protestants can try to argue that the early Christians never envisioned the magnificently opulent cathedrals of the baroque era or the exquisitely regimented ritualism of the Tridentine Mass, but even the most low-church Protestant worship service would — according to this erroneous line of thinking — have been just as alien to the believers of St. Paul’s day. That’s because, strictly speaking, we only read about Christians meeting in other people’s houses, when the meeting place is mentioned at all.
Prayer to Christ
It gets more serious than that. Sola Scriptura legalism cuts to the heart of the faith.
Just how deeply that is came to mind after a reader commented on last week’s piece about prayer to the saints. In a nutshell, that article made the case that prayer to the saints is entirely warranted based on analogy with how figures of the Biblical communicate with angels. It’s an indirect form of argumentation, much like arguing for a certain belief or practice based on principles in Scripture.
But one reader remained unconvinced because Scripture did not contain an exact instance of someone praying to a saint.
If that’s the standard, then all Christians could be in trouble. Because where in the New Testament do we see people praying to Jesus? Seriously. Check your Bible. It’s shocking how hard it is to find an example. One evangelical site, thegospelcoalition.com, points to Acts 7:60, where St. Stephen speaks directly to the ascended Lord.
But someone who didn’t believe in Jesus could argue that St. Stephen’s story is not relevant to ours. They could counter that because he had vision of Christ seated in heaven, and so was then speaking directly to the Lord in a manner now inaccessible to those who do not have such visions. Or they could suggest that as a martyr he was given a special grace to make such a prayer. Or they could claim that what he said was not really a prayer at all.
So how does the Gospel Coalition solve this problem? Their article contends that since Jesus is God it only follows that prayer to Him must be acceptable — a conclusion to which I wholeheartedly agree. Yet when it comes to so many Catholic-specific doctrines — the seven sacraments, the papacy, veneration of Mary, and prayer to the saints — some Protestants refuse to accept this kind of inductive reasoning.
But ultimately they can’t escape this truth: Christians do not need something to be explicitly permitted in Scripture to make it a fundamental part of what they believe and how they live it out.
Sola Scriptura is not in Scripture
Clearly, Sola Scriptura can be devastating to the faith. But ultimately, if carried to its logical conclusion, it self-destructs. This can be demonstrated by another simple question: Where in the Bible is Sola Scriptura proclaimed?
Most Protestants will cite verses on the authority of Scripture as the word of God. A common one is from 2 Timothy 3:
But you, remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known [the] sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work (verses 14-17).
Put simply, 2 Timothy 3 does not say what many think it does. It does not say Scripture is the only source of authority. It does not say there are no authoritative, God-ordained interpreters of Scripture — which is what the popes and the bishops are. Everything these verses say is wholeheartedly affirmed by Catholicism: Scripture does give us wisdom about salvation. It is inspired by God. It is useful for teaching and formation.
One reason the above verse is cited so often is because it is one of the rare mentions of the word ‘Scripture’ in the New Testament that could be about the New Testament itself. Otherwise, ‘Scripture’ usually refers back to the Old Testament. (This in of itself should be a problem from the Protestant perspective: under what authority are the books of the New Testament recognized as Scripture?)
The absence of such a command matters. The gospels are replete with commandments issued by Jesus. One count estimates there are 50 of them. Moreover, Jesus clearly designated some commands as specially pre-eminent. One thinks especially of His words to repeat the Last Supper and the Great Commission. It is simply inconceivable that a matter of such grave importance would not only have been omitted by Jesus in his earthly ministry but also by every writer in the New Testament.
As Catholics, the absence of an explicit permission isn’t a prohibition. But it is for the most legalistic of Sola Scriptura Protestants. Of course, true Catholics would never choose to hold to such a principle. But Protestants themselves have ample reason to reject it as well.