I read part of an article on sola scriptura today, and I thought it’s high time I addressed the subject here. This isn’t a response to that article. The article just provides an easy outline to address.
Sola scriptura, by the way, is the teaching that the Bible is the sole rule for faith and practice. There is no authoritative source of truth outside the Bible.
Literally, of course, it means "Scripture only."
The article reviews a book called The Shape of Sola Scriptura. The book makes three claims:
- The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is consistent with the teachings of the early church fathers.
- The New Testament teaches sola scriptura.
- Sola scriptura is capable of providing church unity.
So let’s address these one by one:
The Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura Is Consistent with the Teachings of the Early Church Fathers
The only early church fathers I would pay any attention to are those before the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. After that, doctrine could be decreed. The churches could get together and change whatever they want, so I wouldn’t lean on any church father after Nicea.
Nonetheless, even the ones before Nicea constitute 4 or 5 times the amount of information that’s in the entire Bible. That’s hard to sift through, and easy to quote mine. (To quote mine is to quote out of context, making the author appear to say something contrary to what he really meant.)
To reduce the amount of material we have to sift through, let’s tie this one to the third one. Did the pre-nicene fathers believe that sola scriptura could produce church unity?
Irenaeus, around A.D. 185, said the following about how church unity was maintained. (The early churches didn’t have to produce unity; they already had it.)
The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [Irenaeus here gives a statement of faith longer than but similar to the Nicene Creed.] … The Church, having received this preaching and this faith … carefully preserves it. … For although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the meaning of the tradition is one and the same. (Against Heresies I:10:1-2)
Tertullian, 20 years later, says something very similar.
[The apostles] founded churches in every city from which all other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith and the seeds of doctrine and are every day deriving them. (Prescription Against Heretics 20)
Is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same error? … When that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error but tradition. (ibid. 28)
Both Irenaeus and Tertullian attribute the unity of the church to tradition, not to Scripture.
Mind you, they are not talking about a tradition issued from a hierarchy to all the churches. They are talking about a tradition given by Jesus Christ to the apostles, who then gave it to the churches. Holding to that tradition is what ensured the unity of the churches. There was no freedom to change the tradition, and any church that did change the tradition would have fallen out of sorts with all the other churches (even if that church was Rome).
I think that’s clear enough from the quotes I just gave you.
Thus, I think we can already say that the early church fathers did not teach sola scriptura, nor did they believe the doctrine capable of producing church unity. They already had unity, and that unity was based on a common tradition received from the apostles … say they.
There’s more to say about the Scriptures and tradition, but we will save that for tomorrow.
Can sola scriptura Produce Church Unity?
We have already seen that the pre-nicene churches (those from apostolic times up to A.D. 325) attributed their unity, preserved since the time of the apostles, to a common, handed-down tradition.
But in the modern age, where unity is long gone, is sola scriptura capable of producing church unity?
There are many millions of Christians in denominations that hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura. They are famous for division. If sola scriptura was supposed to produce unity, it’s failing miserably.
Does the New Testament Teach Sola Scriptura?
If it does, I don’t know where.
Here, however, are some verses that teach against sola scriptura:
… the house of God, which is the church of God, the pillar and support of the truth. (1 Tim. 3:15)
I have written these things concerning those who are trying to seduce you. The anointing which you have received from him remains in you, and you do not need any man to teach you. That same anointing teaches you about everything, and it is true and not a lie. Just as it has taught you, you shall remain in him. (1 Jn. 2:26-27)
[Christ] gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the full equipping of the saints to do the work of ministry and to build up the body of Christ. [This they will do] until we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God … so that we are no longer children, tossed here and there and blown around by every wind of teaching, by the trickery of men, and by their skillful deceit. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we may grow up into him in all things. (Eph. 4:11-15)
Thus, we need the church as the pillar and support of the truth. We need the anointing to teach us together so that we are not seduced. And, finally, we need God-appointed leaders to equip us to serve and build up the church so that we are not blown around by every wind of doctrine.
The Scriptures support every one of these actions. The Scriptures are profitable for doctrine. They are profitable for correction and instruction in righteousness. We need them so that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
But one man reading them by himself is not enough, and that is what sola scriptura teaches.
Even a group of men, depending only on Scripture, will almost always end up led astray, not in unity, disagreeing with everyone around them. How do I know that? Because it happens all the time! Look around!
Here’s what the Scriptures have to say about what will happen if all you have is yourself, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible:
Exhort/encourage one another daily, while it is called today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. (Heb. 3:13)
Yes, what you can expect if it’s just you, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible is that you will be deceived by the hardness of your own heart. We need the exhortation of our brothers!
As Proverbs says:
He who separates himself seeks his own desire. He quarrels against all sound wisdom. (Prov. 18:1, NASB)
Tomorrow we’ll talk about Scripture and tradition and how the early churches believed they mixed, and we’ll also look at the Roman Catholic and Orthodox view of tradition. There’s a couple interesting statements in that article I referenced at the top of the post.