Actual conversations with people of other beliefsIn this series I will present actual conversations I have had with people of differing faith traditions. Some are email conversations, some are recollections of verbal conversations.
The following is a Facebook conversation I had with someone I used to go to church with about Sola Scriptura. I have attempted to remove all identifying information regarding the person I was speaking with but other than that and spelling / grammar errors it is exactly what I posted.
The conversation references a quote from the well known Protestant theologian, R.C. Sprouls. I might actually have it quoted and referenced in the post, but for the sake of new readers the quote from Mr. Sprouls is that "at best" what we can know about the books that make up Scripture is "a fallible list of infallible books."
And now, with out further delay: A Catholic Conversation on Sola Scriptura
Thank you so much for the charitable tone. In several other discussions I’ve had, I have rarely found the level of charity you have presented here. Thank You.
If, again, you would permit me to respond: I love having these conversations. I hope you find it equally charitable. Proverbs says, “Iron sharpens iron” (27:17); I believe that understanding each other’s beliefs will better help us when we stand shoulder to shoulder as Christ’s co-laborers, battling the world, the flesh and the devil while spreading the Good News to every living thing.
That being said, due to family, work and school (both mine and the kids) I probably will not be able to respond more. Since you were kind enough to leave me an additional resource, I will do the same. I invite you to utilize it to help answer questions and difficulties you might have regarding my beliefs.
Please know that in no way does my critique of Sola Scriptura mean a critique on you or the millions of other faithful, holy Christians that practice it. You, and many, many other non-Catholic Christians, have helped show me what it means to allow Jesus to live in your hearts. Thank you.
I completely and whole-heartedly agree that Scripture is a binding authority, and that it is the inspired written Word of God. I believe, with the Catholic Church, that not only is Scripture a binding authority on the faithful, it is God-breathed and profitable for a host of things in order that the man of God may be equipped for every good work. If you would like a deeper understanding of how high the Catholic Church places Scripture, please read ‘Dei Verbum.’ (Google it, it’s free on the Vatican website).
My only critique is of the word “alone”. Against this, I will present only three arguments here, but these are by no means the only ones. I have them numbered for clarity.
1) I absolutely agree with Sproul and the article that just because the Catholic Church determined the cannon of Scripture that it does not directly follow that the Catholic Church is infallible. The Biblical case for Church and Papal infallibility I must leave for another day.
But recognizing that the Church determined the cannon of Scripture, that fact alone is devastating to the Sola Scriptura claim, if it is to hold to even the definition presented in this article.
If Sola Scriptura is the sole and final authority, then to stay true to its own principle it must determine the content of Scripture: I must be able to find, in Scripture Alone, why 3rd John – which doesn’t even mention Christ – is in Scripture, but Clement’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians is out. (Clement may be the one mentioned in Paul’s letter to Philippians , was baptized by Peter and learned under Paul and John. For Catholics, he is also the 4th pope.)
However that is a logical impossibility: every non-Catholic Christian I have ever had this discussion with agrees that Scripture cannot and did not determine itself. Therefore, by that logical argument alone, Sola Scriptura cannot be true.
In addition, whatever determined the content of Scripture must have had authority equal that of Scripture. (You cannot have more in the effect than is present in the cause, which is the Law of Cause and Effect). If it did not have authority – or if that authority is not recognized, at least implicitly – then there is no argument against Joseph Smith adding the Book of Mormon, or for Ellen White for adding her writings, or for anyone to alter Scripture eliminating things they don’t agree with or adding things they believe.
If that authority was not equal that of Scripture, we have the problem of a greater effect than in the cause – a logical impossibility – or of appealing the legitimacy of the lessor authority (the cause) to the greater authority (the effect) which is also a logical impossibility.
So my first argument is the fact that Scripture Alone could not and did not determine itself and whatever did determine the content of Scripture must have authority equal that of Scripture. This shows that “Sola” Scriptura cannot be true.
2) For my second argument let me present an experiment here: Read this phrase out loud:
“I never said you stole money.”
Do you understand that phrase? I hope so. Do you know what I meant? Sure. Could you accurately teach someone else what I was saying? Well let’s see.
Now I want you to repeat the phrase, this time emphasizing the word separate by the dots.
“…I… never said you stole money.” What does that mean now? That someone said it, just not me.
“I never …said… you stole money.” How about now? It means I thought it or wrote it but did not say it.
“I never said …you… stole money.” Now it means I said someone else stole it.
“I never said you …stole… money.” Now it means I said you borrowed it, or found it but not stole.
“I never said you stole …money…” Now it means I said you stole something just not money.
Do you see how the meaning changes dramatically? Which one did I mean originally?
My second argument is that using “Only” Scripture, we cannot know with certainty the meaning of words and phrases in Scripture, which can only be accurately communicated by the spoken word, unless we apply an outside source.
This is also true if applied to translations: Sola Scriptura cannot tell us whether or not a translation is good or even accurate. A good example is the Greek word “Epiousios” found in the two Lord’s Prayer narratives (Mt 6:11 and Lk 11:3). Besides those two usages, there is no other usage of the word found in all of history. Scripture alone cannot tell us what it means. Yet everyone translates it “daily” except St. Jerome, the first to translate the entire Scriptures into Latin – he was hundreds of years closer to the sources and knew Greek.
Another good example is translating ancient Hebrew. I’m sure I’m telling you nothing new by saying that ancient Hebrew does not have vowels. The consonant only words can have multiple meanings if the “vowels” are applied differently. For an example in English: “RP” could mean “rope”, “rap”, “reap”, or “rape”. Scripture Alone cannot help us with that, we must appeal to an outside source that has authority, or all of the authority of the Old Testament is suspect.
The article and most other Protestants I discuss this with agree that there is “some place” for tradition and “proper” exegesis (sources outside of Scripture). But if Sola Scriptura is true and faithfully applied, we find ourselves using circular logic, which is illogical: I appeal to Scripture as my final or sole authority, but I need some outside source to help me understand that Scripture, but that outside source must be subject to Scripture, which is my final and sole authority, but I need some outside source to help me understand the Scripture that shows me whether or not the outside source is valid to help me know what the first Scripture says in the first place! Whew!
So that outside source must, again, have authority, or be backed by authority, equal to that of Scripture so we can have certainty about the meaning of what we are reading and not get caught in yet another logical impossibility.
3) My third argument has to do with how Sola Scriptura is actually applied: the application of Sola Scriptura shows that it cannot work.
Most non-Catholic Christians would agree that if someone wants to learn how to live as a Christian, all they need to do is pick up a Bible, start reading and the Holy Spirit will guide them to know the truth. Every essential thing we need to know to get to heaven is clearly stated in Scripture, as I’ve been told.
But what happens when two Christians, both claiming Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, come up with two opposite ideas on salvation. Let’s use, for example, baptism: If one person claims that Scripture says baptism is only an ordinance and has no actual role in salvation, but another person claims that Scripture says that baptism is necessary for salvation, what decides between them? Both claim that the Holy Spirit inspired them to find this truth. They both cannot be right. Does the Holy Spirit create division? No. Well, then who is wrong not only about their reading of Scripture, but about being led by the Holy Spirit?
I’ve had numerous non-Catholic Christians say that due to sin people sometimes misinterpret things. That is absolutely true, but that doesn’t solve the problem because I cannot look into the hearts of these two people to see who is more sinful; and even that would not eliminate the possibility that the “more sinful” person is actually right. This is dealing with salvation: heaven and hell are on the line.
What actually happens is they will start two different churches, both claiming the truth, both claiming to be Sola Scriptura, both claiming inspiration of the Holy Spirit… but at least one of them is leading people astray. Is this what Christ meant when he said the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth? Is this what Christ prayed for when he prayed that all of us should be one? Is this what St. Paul commands of us when he says that we should not disagree on ANY point of the faith?
To try to rectify the discrepancy between what Scripture plainly says against division and what was happening, two lists were created - Essentials and Non-essentials - and the quote from St. Augustine: “In Essentials, unity; in non-Essentials, liberty; in all things, Charity” was applied. But there are two problems with this: 1) Different denominations disagree on what is essential and non-essential, all claiming the Bible and the Holy Spirit; 2) If Sola Scriptura is true then we should find this idea of “essentials and non-essentials” in the Bible and a clear list of each so that anyone can pick up the Bible and know what is essential and what is not.
As you well know, there are people who claim the Bible and the Holy Spirit to wrongly justify homosexuality, abortion, divorce / remarriage, contraception, slavery, racism, genocide (religious and racial), and a host of other evils.
But of no less eternal importance are also the contradictory Bible Alone based claims of:
1) Predestination or Free Will
2) Salvific, efficacious Baptism or mere ordinance and symbol
3) Infant Baptism: valid or heresy
4) The Lord’s Supper: Real Presence and required (High Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox) or “Spiritual Reality” and necessary (Calvinistic – as I’m sure you know Calvin believed that a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper was essential for salvation), “Spiritual Reality” but not required (some Reformed) or “Symbol only” and not necessary (Zwingli and followers)
5) The role of works in salvation: The only thing you need (Pelegianism), Christ did His part now we do ours in addition to His (Semi-Pelegianism); Faith and Works both necessary but both empowered by the free gift of Grace; or Works not necessary just Faith (as mental assent) only; or if you do try good works you’re going to Hell.
6) The role of intercession of Saints in heaven: good and helpful practice but not necessary or you’re going to hell if you do it.
7) Even the nature of the Holy Spirit Himself is debated: a thing, not divine, subservient to the Father and Son and should not be worshiped (Oneness Pentecostals, some other Pentecostals, Assemblies of God) or God and our worship of Him is required.
Why does this happen? Because Sola Scriptura really means: my sole rule / final authority for faith is [my interpretation of] the Bible. If a belief agrees with [my interpretation of] Scripture, then I accept it; If a belief doesn’t agree with [my interpretation of] Scripture, I reject it.
I recall talking with people about why we chose the denomination we did when starting __________ church. The response was something similar to: they agree with us more than the others. The question arose in my brain: aren’t we supposed to look for the one that is True by God’s standards, regardless of what I believe, how I read or interpret Scripture?
When private interpretation of that sole, final rule of authority enters the picture, anything goes. If someone is justified in interpreting, “This is My Body” as “This is not My Body” or “So you see it is by works we are justified and not by faith alone” as “so you see it is by faith alone that we are justified and not by works” and still claim the Holy Spirit led them, how are we to deny someone from saying “No one comes to the Father except through me” actually means there are other ways to the Father (Universalists) Jesus is just one of them; or Jesus never claimed to be Divine and therefor isn’t (Jehovah’s Witness’); or even that the translation is wrong and John 1:1 really says “…the Word was with God and the Word was a god” (Mormons).
I sympathize with you, when you say you’d be lost without Sola Scriptura. I wasn’t sure what to do when I started realizing this at ________ church. either. I tried to bring up some of what I was finding in Scripture, but I was told I was not right. But wait, Scripture and the Holy Spirit were guiding me. How can anyone else say that is wrong? Under what authority do they say that? (Boy is that a dangerous question!)
Do you remember the first question Tricia and I asked at the Membership Class? We asked: “Where did the Bible come from and why should we believe it?” No one answered. If we cannot answer those questions with certainty, then we can never hope to rely on Scripture Alone with certainty. Sproul answers those questions by saying: we can’t know the content of Scripture with certainty. That’s a similar answer I’ve received from numerous other non-Catholic Christians.
But God did not leave us orphans. God did not intend for these questions to remain unanswered, or answered with a ‘shrug’. Christ is Truth (Jn 14:6) He wants us to know Him with certainty (1 Tim 2:4). So what system did God set up to help us solve these issues? Where are we supposed to appeal when we get into the above types of discussions? To what did Paul and Barnabas appeal when they couldn’t solve the problem of circumcision?
Well that’s a topic for another day. (Doh! I HATE cliff hangers!! J )
God Bless you on your Journey of Faith and thank you for being a part of re-introducing my wife and I to the Life Transforming Jesus.
Fidei Defensor Green Bay
P.S. Here is that resource I told you about: http://www.catholic.com/tracts/scripture-and-tradition