Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Workable, Part I

In September 1996 I resigned my ministry as a Protestant pastor to enter the Catholic Church.

It was a decision that was easy for me to make in that I was convinced Catholicism was true and that the Catholic Church was my spiritual home. It was a decision that was nearly impossible to make in that I understood the implications of that decision. I knew what it would entail in practical terms.

This was made beautifully manifest, shall we say, when three months after leaving the ministry I was standing in the kitchen of the restaurant where I was then working as a waiter. I was folding napkins and thinking about Martin Luther when I suddenly heard someone yelling about something. I looked up and saw my manager standing in the doorway. She was literally screaming at me to fold the napkins faster.

I remember mumbling an apology, cranking up the speed and thinking to myself, What the hell have I done?

But then, there were reasons for doing what I did. I didn’t leave Protestantism, the Protestant ministry, my career and only source of income because I liked the smell of incense. There were reasons, and one of the most important had to do with the topic we’ve been on for quite a few blog posts now: sola scriptura. 

Sola scriptura had been the very foundation of my worldview as an evangelical. It was the very atmosphere breathed at the Bible college I attended, in seminary, in every church I’d been a part of or pastored. And then the time came when I was challenged with the questions: is sola scriptura really the teaching of Scripture? Was it really the belief and practice of the early Church?

Over time I came to believe it wasn’t.

But that wasn’t all. I also came to believe that sola scriptura is unworkable as a mode of operation for the Church.

And I don’t mean simply that it doesn’t work well and that we need to work harder to accurately interpret the Bible and pray harder for the guidance of the Spirit in order to make sola scriptura work. What I mean is that even in principle it does not—and indeed cannot—work.

Since the time of the Reformation, the practice of “Scripture alone” has served as a perfect blueprint for theological anarchy.

It can’t be what Jesus intended for his Church.

The Catholic view of authority

At the time of the Reformation in the sixtennth century, the Church’s position on the issue of authority was essentially the same as it had been since the time of the early Church Fathers: authority was seen as residing in the inner working of Scripture, apostolic Tradition and an authoritative magisterium.

One Christian might say this and another that. Debates might rage between various theologians and schools of thought. Great doctors of the Church might wrangle and dispute. But when the time comes that a decision must be made, and the Church examines the light of the inspired word of God through the lens of Sacred Tradition, and through its ordained leadership formally defines a matter of faith or practice, what Catholics believe is that the Holy Spirit leads the Church so that the conclusion it comes to can be trusted as true. The Church can say what it said at the conclusion of its first council in Jerusalem: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

The Catholic view of how Scripture, Tradition, and magisterium work together to provide a basis of authority for the Christian is beautifully summarized in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum:

Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God, which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone….Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant.  It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully (DV 9).

The origin of sola scriptura

At the time of the Reformation Luther and the other Protestants were teaching doctrines that contradicted what Tradition and the magisterium had established as true.

Luther said, in essence, “The Church is wrong on this issue.” (The specific issue doesn’t matter at this point.) The Church said, in essence, “No, you’re wrong.” Luther said, “No, you’re wrong.” The Church said, “But what you’re teaching contradicts the formal teaching of the Church on this issue.”

With this the foundational issue of authority was raised, and Luther faced a watershed: what did he believe about who has authority to decide what the true teachings of Christianity are? Did the Church have authority when, having examined Scripture and Tradition, it made formal ruling on an issue of doctrine or morals?

Or was it up to each Christian to decide?

Luther really had only two options: he could stand with the authority of the Church and say, “You know, it sure seems to me that this is what the Bible is teaching, but I must be missing something. I must be wrong.” Or he could abandon the authority of the Church and stand on his own interpretation of the Bible, whatever the cost.

We all know what Luther did. He stood before the Diet of Worms and said:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scripture or by evident reason . . . I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis. My conscience is captive to the word of God.

It is nearly impossible to exaggerate the profound meaning of this moment in the history of Christianity. At the moment Luther spoke those words, the foundation of the Catholic worldview, its very basis of authority—the light of Sacred Scripture, seen through the lens of Sacred Tradition, interpreted by the teaching office of the Church—was rejected, abandoned, set aside. And the foundation of the Protestant worldview was laid: Scripture is the Christian’s sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice.

Practical implications

So what are the implications of saying that Scripture will function as my “sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice”?

It means that whatever the Fathers of the Church may have said, whatever Church councils may have decided, on whatever popes and theologians and pastors and teachers may have insisted, in the end I am going to be bound only by what I determine the Bible to be teaching.

The primary and inescapable practical implication of sola scriptura is what is called the “right of private judgment,” or the “right of private interpretation.” It’s the right of each Christian to read, study, and decide for himself what he believes the true teachings of Christianity to be.

Of course, Catholics also believe in the right of private interpretation. It’s just that we hold this to be a limited right, a right practiced within the limits of what the Church has already formally defined to be true.

As Catholics, we’re like children at the playground. We’re free to swing and slide and sit in the sandbox of Scripture, throwing biblical texts into one another’s eyes. But there’s a fence around the playground that keeps us from wandering out into the street and being run over by every passing theological fad.

Luther ripped out that fence. He took what had been a limited right and made it an absolute right. “Unless I am convinced.” In other words, in the final analysis, I don’t care what popes have said! I don’t care what the councils have said! I don’t care what the Tradition of the Church has been. Unless I am convinced from Scripture and evident reason . . . “Unless I am convinced . . .”

And when you think about it, in the absence of the kind of Church we see functioning in the New Testament, a Church with the Spirit-given ability to pronounce authoritatively on the true teachings of Christianity—the kind of Church the Catholic Church claims to be—what is left but to say that each Christian has to right to decide for himself?

Luther put it like this: “In these matters of faith, to be sure, each Christian is for himself pope and church”(Werke, 5:407, 35)

In his “Reply to Sadoleto,” John Calvin stated the same belief in these words:

We hold that the word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment. . . . Fathers and councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the word (emphasis added).

Sounds good, but of course there’s a hitch: the word of God has to be read and interpreted. All of the material of revelation may be there in the pages of Scripture, either stated or implied. But someone has to pull together the many strands of scriptural evidence, draw out those implications, and come to conclusions about what is being taught. Someone has to interpret Scripture.

So when Calvin says, “Fathers and councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the word,” what he’s really saying is, “Fathers and councils are of authority only in so far as what they say accords with what I determine the Bible to be teaching.”

The unraveling of the Church

It’s easy to project what would come of this.

As soon as Luther and Calvin and the others began preaching sola scriptura and the right of private interpretation, immediately there was an explosion of interpretations of Scripture and with this an explosion of divisions within Protestantism. The immediate result was doctrinal chaos.

It’s easy to see this in the current situation where Christians assume it is their right and duty to determine whether the Baptists are right or the Presbyterians or the Methodists or the Lutherans or the Seventh-day Adventists or the teaching of some independent teacher or denomination.

But listen to what one prominent Protestant theologian and professor was saying within a couple years of Luther’s launching of the Reformation:

Noblemen, townsmen, peasants, all classes understand the gospel better than I or St. Paul; they are now wise and think themselves more learned than all the ministers. . . . There is no smearer but when he has heard a sermon or can read a chapter in German, makes a doctor of himself and . . . convinces himself that he knows everything better than all who teach him.

And in another place:

There are as many sects and beliefs as there are heads. This fellow will have nothing to do with baptism; another denies the sacrament; a third believes that there is another world between this and the Last Day. Some teach that Christ is not God; some say this, some say that. There is no rustic so rude but that, if he dreams or fancies anything, it must be the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and he himself a prophet

Interesting quotes. Especially when you know these are the words of Martin Luther himself.

Conclusion

It makes sense that sola scriptura and the right of private interpretation would lead to doctrinal chaos among Christians, and in terms of the simple facts of history, it seems obvious that it has. It also makes sense to think that Jesus would want to establish his Church with some method for authoritatively deciding matters of faith and practice, Doesn’t it make sense to think he wouldn’t simply toss a pile of books and letters into our laps and say, “Do your best!”?

I remember the day I read the following passage from Vincent of Lerins and thought, “Yes this is how it must be”:

Here someone may ask: since the canon of Scriptures is complete, and is in itself adequate, why is there any need to join to its authority the understanding of the Church. Because Holy Scripture, on account of its depth, is not accepted in a universal sense. The same statements are interpreted in one way by one person, in another sense by someone else, with the result that there seem to be as many opinions as there are people. . . . Therefore, on account of the number and variety of errors, there is a need for someone to lay down a rule for the interpretation of the prophets and the apostles in such a way that it is directed by the rule of the Catholic Church (see Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 50-51).

To be continued . . .

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.
Kenneth Hensley

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Kenneth Hensley holds a master’s degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. A respected Catholic apologist and teacher, he appears on EWTN and speaks at conferences across the country on Catholic and Protestant history and theology, as well as theistic apologetics. He blogs at CallingAllConverts.com and resides in the Los Angeles area with his wife, Tina.

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  • Thomas More

    The author points out that which should be self-evident to all protestants, namely doctrinal chaos. If you are a protestant, how do you reconcile the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of denominations who espouse doctrine (whether written, as a constitution, or disseminated orally by preachers, varying from congregation to congregation) different from one another?

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