One of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation is the doctrine of "Sola Scriptura," or "Scripture alone." The reformers taught that the Bible was the sole rule of faith, and that there was no need for an authoritative church. Now if this were a true teaching, as some still contend, we would expect to find it in the Bible, but we don't. The verse usually used to justify Sola Scriptura is 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
Note that this passage nowhere says that Scripture is the sole rule of faith. It says that it is profitable, and that is true. But that doesn’t make it the sole rule of faith. It says that it can make you complete, and that is also true. However, in order for Scripture to make us complete, we must accept all that it teaches. And Scripture teaches that Christ established an authoritative church (see essay on the Church). That is why Paul tells Titus, who headed the church at Crete, to "Exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you" (Titus 2:15). Indeed an authoritative church is necessary in light of 2 Peter 1:20: "You must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation." That is also why the Bible tells us that the Church and not the Bible is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). So Scripture makes us complete by providing us with all we need to know to be saved and by also providing us with a Church that can ensure that we receive that message accurately.
Cardinal Newman noted some years ago that 2 Timothy could not support the doctrine of Sola Scriptura because Paul's statement to Timothy would have to apply to him at that time. At that time there was only an Old Testament. If 2 Timothy were true in the sense that Protestants claim it is, it would rule out the New Testament, something that no Bible believing Christian would ever do.
Protestants claim that the Holy Spirit teaches them directly. They would point to 1 John 2:26-27, which says, "I write this to you about those who would deceive you, but the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you, as His anointing teaches you about everything." At first glance, this might appear to support their argument. However, putting it in context reveals something quite different. Note that John begins by saying, "I write this to you about those who would deceive you." These are the teachers that John tells us we have no need of. Read verses 21-25, and the context becomes even clearer. "I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what He has promised us, eternal life."
The anointing that John speaks of is an anointing that we posses by virtue of our Christianity. It is an anointing by which we receive grace – grace that enables us to do just what John asks us to do, to hold on to what we were taught from the beginning despite the enticements of the deceivers. He speaks of the truth as something that was received from the Church and not something that was personally received from the Holy Spirit.
While it is true that the Holy Spirit can and oftentimes does guide us personally, it is equally true that we are not always listening. Sometimes our own thoughts or the deceptions of others can be mistaken for the Holy Spirit. That is why God wouldn't choose this as the way to present the faith. After all, if we are to make a choice for Christ, we must know and not imagine what that choice entails.
The book of Ephesians addresses 2 Timothy and 1 John beautifully, "And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints...so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (4:11-12, 14). Remember earlier in 2 Timothy, we found the phrase, (concerning Scripture) "that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." First Paul tells us that we need Scripture to be equipped, then he tells us that we need teachers to be equipped. Is there a contradiction here? Not at all as Scripture without the proper interpretation is of no value. That is why the Ethiopian Eunuch, despite his genuine desire for God, needed Philip to explain the Scriptures to him (Acts 8:26-40). Note that it was God who sent Philip to the eunuch. Why do you suppose He did that?
The claim that we don't need teachers fails not only on the theological level, but in its practical application as well. If John believes that we don't need any teachers, why is he sending a letter that teaches? In fact why were any of the epistles written and preserved? Are they not the authoritative teachings of Church leaders? It is also interesting to note that most Protestant pastors attended seminary where they were taught the Bible. On Sundays they give sermons in which they teach the Bible. They have Bible studies where again they teach the Bible. If we really don't need teachers why is all of this going on?
The early Christians couldn't have believed in Sola Scriptura even if they had wanted to, as they didn't have any Bibles. The printing press wasn't invented until 1450. Before that time Bibles were hand written and a copy would have cost the modern day equivalent of about $8000.00. Even if they had access to Bibles it wouldn't have been much better as 99% of the people were illiterate. So the type of Christianity that Protestants say Jesus established wasn't even possible for fourteen centuries after he supposedly established it. Even today many countries have a low literacy rate. Didn't Jesus die for everyone? How are those who cannot read to know the Gospel? An authoritative church is the only logical and Biblical answer. Also worthy of note is the fact that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is not found in any of the creeds from the early Church. If it were such an important doctrine that would have been unconscionable.
It is hard to imagine that Jesus would establish a church that would be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). And that is exactly what it would be if our Protestant brothers and sisters were right on this issue. There are over 28,000 Protestant denominations all with different interpretations of the Bible. All of them claim authority from the Bible but they can't all be right, as the Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself. Therefore we can conclude that a good part of what they teach is the product of their own reasoning. The book of Proverbs advises us well when it says, "Lean not on your own understanding" (3:5). As long as humans are flawed creatures their reasoning will be flawed. Maybe not on every issue, but certainly on some. Who among us has not seen his or her errors in retrospect? Unfortunately it is not uncommon for the illusions of men to be presented as the Will of God.
Oftentimes those who reject Church authority do so in the name of freedom. But their concept of freedom is seriously flawed. Freedom is accompanied by responsibilities. As Bishop Donald Wuerl points out, "Freedom is not just about making choices but about making right choices. To place one's hand in an open fire is to exercise human freedom irresponsibly." In other words, freedom is not achieved by doing what you want; it is the result of doing what is right. An honest alcoholic knows this well.
Sola Scriptura and the accompanying idea of private interpretation bear a striking resemblance to New Age thought. The New Ager says, "I am God." The Protestant in effect says, "I speak for God." A major tenet of the New Age Movement is that there is no ultimate reality. Each individual must decide for himself what reality is. Thus "every man does what is right in his own eyes" (Judges 17:6). With the private interpretation of Scripture each individual decides for himself what Christian reality is. This is a far cry from the Biblical view of, "One Lord, one faith, one Baptism" (Ephesians 4:5). We would do well to heed the warning of Proverbs 14:12, "There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death."
Some may see that as harsh. After all, we are told,
Protestants only disagree on non-essential issues. But is that really the case?
One of the areas of contention is the subject of salvation. We are told by some
that once you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior you are saved. At that point
some say that you can lose it and some say that you can't. And then there are
those who believe in a strict predestination. The idea that God arbitrarily
chooses who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. The individual can do
nothing to affect this decision. Thus you can even have a baby who dies in the
womb burning in hell for all eternity because God says so.
All of these points of view are accepted under the umbrella of Protestant orthodoxy. And yet they are contradictory. This is hardly a non-essential issue. We all agree that the whole point of Christianity is eternal salvation. And yet Protestants can’t agree on how it is achieved? The resulting disunity is a scandal to the world and a stumbling block for many. Who knows how many more souls could have been won for Christ had this confusion not existed? It has been said that Jesus would have gone to the cross even if there were only one sinner. If this is true then it would follow that every soul is precious. If every soul is precious how can we write off millions of them in the name of freedom?
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For Further Study
Free - Confirming Biblical History
and The Early Church Fathers on Scripture
Books - You Can Understand the Bible by Peter Kreeft and The Catholic Bible Study Handbook (Second Revised Edition) by Jerome Kodell, O.S.B and 150 Bible Verses Every Catholic Should Know
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