The Sufficient and Final Authority of the Scriptures
- Does the Bible teach Sola Scriptura?
- How could a fallible Church deliver the infallible Bible?
- How can the Bible be a sufficient guide when it cannot guide us in the question of the right canon?
- Sola Scriptura and Fallibility of Human Interpretation
We believe that the Holy Scriptures, also known as the Bible, represent a body of writings written by prophets and apostles inspired by the Holy Spirit. Through God's chosen prophets and apostles, the Lord has communicated His word to mankind and guided His people to preserve these writings in a collection of books known as the Holy Scriptures. The Holy Scriptures represent God's revelation of His will to mankind: through the Scriptures we learn to know God and teachings of His Moral Law. God's Law shows us what we must do in order to have a proper relation with Him, with other people, and with the world we live in. In other words, the Scriptures teach us how to live a meaningful and authentic life that would please God.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
We believe that the Holy Bible is the only infallible and final authority for the Church. In other words, we believe in the principle of Sola Scriptura: the Holy Bible is the only infallible source of God's revelation for the post-apostolic Church.1 Christian denominations not submitting to the principle of Sola Scriptura are on dangerous ground: they do not stand in the tradition of the apostolic teachings. That tradition is constituted by the teachings of the Apostles through their words and written epistles. We should adhere to the apostolic tradition only.
Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. (2 Thess. 2:15)
An important note concerning the implications of Sola Scriptura is that the principle does not teach Solo Scriptura (or Nuda Scriptura). According to Solo Scriptura, "Scripture is the sole basis and authority in the life of a Christian. Tradition is useless and misleading, and creeds and confessions are the result of man-made traditions."2 Many Evangelicals or Protestants misunderstand Sola Scriptura in the sense that we should completely ignore tradition.
It represents the unfortunate position of many evangelical or fundamental Protestants who misunderstand Sola Scriptura believing that it means that the ideal place for believers to find authority and interpret Scripture is to do so in a historical vacuum, disregarding any tradition that might influence and bind their thinking. Not only does this undermine the Holy Spirit's role in the lives of believers of the past, but it is a position of arrogance, elevating individual reason to the position of final authority. It also disregards the fact that it is impossible to interpret in a vacuum.
Protestants have many authorities in their lives[, w]hether it be parents, government, the church, or traditions. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura does not mean that we don't have any other authorities or even sources of revelation, but that the Scripture alone is the final and only infallible source--it is the ultimate source.3
Hence the key word in the formulation of the principle of Sola Scriptura is the word infallible: the Bible is the only infallible authority for the post-apostolic Church. This means that we can also consult other authorities, such as tradition, history, commentaries written by scholars, and our faculties of reason and common sense. However, all these authorities are fallible, and must therefore be subject to verification and tests.
We will discuss the validity of Sola Scriptura by examining important arguments that figure in the dispute about its legitimacy. Through our discussion we will show that the principle is implicitly taught in the Bible – i.e., it can be inferred from certain biblical observations – and provide answers to typical objections against it, objections usually given by the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. However, our discussion about Sola Scriptura is restricted within the context of the dispute among fundamental Christians. Fundamental Christians are Christians subscribing to Christian fundamentalism. The term Christian fundamentalism is used here in politically neutral terms, referring to Christians who accept the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals, but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming. Understood as such, Christian fundamentalism is interdenominational, encompassing Christians from various traditions, such as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Anabaptist, etc. A fundamental Christian, thus, believes in the infallibility of the Bible, but can deny its sufficient authority (e.g., the traditional Roman Catholic stance). We will, therefore, examine important arguments figuring in the dispute, where both parties in the dispute are fundamental Christians.
First, we will show that Sola Scriptura is implicitly taught in the Bible, i.e. it can be inferred from certain biblical observations. Second, we will briefly deal with the relation between fallibility of Church and the infallibility of the Bible. Third, we will deal with the objection that the Bible cannot possibly be sufficient since it allegedly cannot guide us on the question of the right canon. Our reply to the objection is that its presupposition is false. It is simply not true that the Bible is silent on the question of the right canon. Quite on the contrary, it provides guiding principles that would help us to determine the right canon.
The remaining part of our discussion deals with the question of division among adherents of Sola Scriptura. The usual objection posed by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians is that the Bible cannot possibly be a sufficient guiding authority in the Church, in the light of the fact that there are so many doctrinal divisions among the followers of Sola Scriptura. We will show that there is likewise much division among Christians who deny Sola Scriptura, and that there is much unity among Christians who subscribe to Sola Scriptura.
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Does the Bible teach Sola Scriptura?
The principle of Sola Scriptura is a meta-biblical principle, i.e., it says something about the Bible. We would not expect that the Bible, as a collection of books written by different authors in different times, would explicitly speak about books that were not yet formed. We would not expect it since such a statement presupposes the closure of the canon. Sola Scriptura presupposes the idea of closed canonicity because the principle makes sense only in a context where one raises the question of sufficient and final authority of the Holy Scriptures qua an established and closed body of books. The historical background of the formulation of the principle is during the Protestant Reformation, when the central question was how authoritative is this body of Holy Scriptures: whether it is the only infallible and final authority for the Church. This question presupposes the view of a closed canon.
However, Sola Scriptura is implicitly taught in the Bible, i.e., it can be inferred from certain biblical observations. The following is a line of inference showing the truth of Sola Scriptura.
- It is forbidden both to add unto and to remove anything from God's commandments (Deut. 4:2, 12:32).
- It is forbidden to add unto God's word (Prov. 30:5-6).
- God's Revelation is constituted by the totality of God's revealed words and commandments.
- God's inspired instructions through prophets and apostles are infallible.
- Human-inspired instructions are fallible.
- Given the premises (1)-(5), it is forbidden to add any new human-inspired instruction unto God's Revelation where such instruction acts as infallibly authoritative.
- The foundation of the Church is the infallible word given by God's prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20).
- The Church is subject only to the traditions of the apostolic teachings: teachings of the apostles through their spoken words and written epistles (2 Thess. 2:15).
- There are no apostles in the post-apostolic Church; thus, we do not have new apostolic teachings in the post-apostolic Church.4
- Likewise, in the post-apostolic Church, there are no prophets who are as great in authority as the biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Alternatively formulated, in the post-apostolic Church, there are no prophets who can issue verbal prophecies having canonical authority.5
- Given premises (9)-(10), we are left with only the written words of the prophets and the apostles.
- The written words of prophets and apostles are preserved in the body of the Holy Scriptures.
- Given the premises (6) and (11)-(12), there are no new infallibly authoritative instructions that should be added unto God's Revelation in the post-apostolic Church.
- In other words, we have the truth of Sola Scriptura.
The above argument is appropriately called The Argument of the Exclusivity of Prophetic Foundation because it appeals to the idea that only true prophecies, i.e., prophecies inspired by God, represent a source of infallible divine revelation, and, therefore, they constitute the only infallible authority for God's people. The argument is valid since the conclusion (14) follows logically from the premises (1)-(13). The pertinent question is whether it is a sound argument. An argument is sound if its conclusion follows from true premises. Let us examine the premises of the argument. Our examination of the premises will be limited within the context of the dispute about Sola Scriptura among fundamental Christians (where the term Christian fundamentalism is defined by the aforementioned terms). We will, therefore, examine the premises in the context of the dispute between those denying the principle and those affirming it, where both parties are fundamental Christians.
Premises (1) and (2) are truths of the Bible (cf. Deut 4:2, 12:32, Prov. 30:5-6) and, as such, they are accepted by both parties in the dispute. Premise (3) is about God's Special Revelation, and not about God's Natural Revelation (cf. Rom. 1:20). Understood as a statement about Special Divine Revelation, it is neutral in the dispute, and can even be taken as a definition of Special Revelation. Premise (4) is indisputable among fundamental Christians. Premise (5) is about pure human inspiration lacking direct divine guidance or influence. Human poetry is an example of such inspiration. A poet can even be inspired by God's creation or by truths of God's Special Revelation during the composition of a poem, but this kind of inspiration is not a result of direct divine guidance or influence. Premise (6) is valid as a consequence of (1) to (5). Premises (7) and (8) are truths of the Bible (cf. Eph. 2:20, 2 Thess. 2:15). Premises (9) and (10) are free from Cessationist assumptions about Charismata. Most Continuationists would agree that the ministry of an apostle was primarily concerned with offering a testimony of Christ's bodily resurrection; therefore, it was a unique ministry only possible in the apostolic period of the Church, i.e., the first century AD (see footnotes 4 and 5). In this context, the term apostle is not used synonymously with missionary, as it tends to be by some modern Christians, but in a more narrow and traditional way. There is no denial of the existence of missionaries, but rather a denial of the existence of missionaries having prophetic authority equal to the canonical authority of the ancient prophets of the Bible. The denial of (9) and (10) would contradict the view of the closed canon, something that very few fundamental Christians would endorse. (For more about the relation between the view of closed canonicity and Continuationism with respect to Charismata, see the section "Canonicity and Sola Scriptura" in the article "The End of Charismatic Gifts".) Premise (11) follows from (9) and (10). Premise (12) is indisputable among fundamental Christians. Premise (13) follows from the premises (6) and (11)-(12). Conclusion (14) follows from premise (13).
We should also recall that Paul the Apostle taught the doctrine of the sufficiency of the Scriptures in matters of salvation: he said to Timothy that the Scriptures can enable a man to be "wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."
And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Tim. 3:15-17)
The fact that the Scriptures can save a man implies that their teachings about salvation are sufficient. Thus, we have a statement about their sufficiency in the matters pertaining to salvation, which is not a small thing considering that 95 percent of the Scriptures are concerned with soteriology: the doctrines needed for a man to be saved from spiritual death.6 This does not mean that 2 Timothy 3:15-17 is a proof-text of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, since not all doctrines (such as the eschatological doctrines concerning the last days) were fully formed at the time of the writing of the Second Epistle to Timothy. Nevertheless, in practical terms, 2 Timothy 3:15-17 is a powerful statement of the sufficiency of the Scriptures as the final and infallible authority in all matters concerning doctrines pertaining to salvation. Thus, we need nothing beyond the Scriptures themselves to serve as an infallible guide to salvation. In other words, in all matters concerning the question of salvation, we have the truth of Sola Scriptura.
For a historic testimony of Sola Scriptura, please read Michael Patton's "In Defense of Sola Scriptura - Part 10 - A Historical Defense", which is a part of his excellent series of articles defending Sola Scriptura.
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How could a fallible church deliver the infallible Bible?
The point with Sola Scriptura is that we must question every doctrine and practice with the infallible standard of the Bible. Our traditions and interpretations might be wrong, and therefore should not be taken for granted. Thus, the Church with its traditions is fallible; it is not immune against error. How then could a fallible church produce something infallible like the Bible?
In this context, we use the term fallible church to refer to a church lacking infallible interpreters of the Bible. Infallible interpreters are persons who have a prophetic authority either to deliver new divine revelations or to interpret these revelations. Conversely, a church is infallible if some of its members are infallible interpreters. We believe that the Bible was given by prophets and apostles, i.e., infallible interpreters. Thus, it was not a fallible church that produced the infallible Bible, but an infallible church in the periods of prophets and apostles.
The Old Testament was given by ancient prophets of Israel. The New Testament was given by prophets and apostles of the apostolic period of the church. The Church is not longer infallible, since the foundational work of apostles and prophets were completed at the end of the first century.7
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How can the Bible be a sufficient guide when it cannot guide us in the question of the right canon?
1. False Presuppositions
The question presupposes that the Bible cannot guide us on the question of the right canon, which is a false presupposition. As we shall see, the Bible provides a general guiding criterion helping us to recognize which books are canonical.
A canon of scripture is a list of books considered to be authoritative as scripture, a body of writings considered as infallibly authoritative. The question of the right canon is about the choice of books considered as canonical. What makes a book canonical? The answer is simple: it must be written by a true prophet who wrote it under God's inspiration. This answer is a corollary of The Argument of the Exclusivity of Prophetic Foundation,8 which is a biblical argument, i.e., an argument based upon relevant biblical texts. Thus, the Bible gives us a general answer to the question that helps us recognize the canonical books. Consequently, the question of the right canon is reduced to the task of determining which books are written by God's prophets. How do we determine whether a book is written by a prophet? A prophetic authorship of a book is determined by reliable historical testimonies.
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2. The Protestant View of Canonicity
As for which books are canonical, we follow the Protestant view of canonicity. According to the Protestant view of the biblical canon, sixty-six books constitute the canon of the Holy Scriptures. Each book is considered to be divinely inspired and, therefore, written by a true prophet.9 The biblical canon is divided into two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament.
With regard to the OT canon, Protestants follow the Jewish canon, which was formally recognized by Jewish rabbis at the end of the first century AD. The main reason for following it is that Jews were chosen by God as custodians of the Hebrew scriptures (cf. Rom 3:2; 9:4). Therefore, Jewish rabbis represent a source of reliable historical testimony of the formation of the OT canon.
The Protestant OT canon is the same in content as the Jewish OT canon (known as Tanakh). The only difference is how the books are arranged and combined.
The Tanakh is also known as the Masoretic Text or the Miqra. The name "Tanakh" is a Hebrew acronym formed from the initial Hebrew letters of the Masoretic Text's three traditional subdivisions: The Torah ("Teaching", also known as the Five Books of Moses), Nevi'im ("Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Writings")--hence TaNaKh. The name "Miqra" is a Hebrew word for the Tanakh, meaning "that which is read", derived from the word qara meaning to read aloud. ("Tanakh", Wikipedia)
The Tanakh contains the same books as the standard thirty-nine books accepted by Protestants today, but they are arranged differently. Modern versions of the Tanakh list thirty-nine separate books, as does the Protestant OT. The traditional Jewish way of counting the thirty-nine books as twenty-four is done by combining double books (1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah) and counting the whole set of twelve minor prophets as a single book (known as The Twelve).10 In Jesus' time, the books were counted as twenty-two, with each double book (e.g., 1 and 2 Kings) counted as one, the twelve Minor Prophets considered a unit, and Judges-Ruth, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Jeremiah-Lamentations each taken as one book.11 Jewish rabbis rejected Septuagint (LXX), which is the Greek version of the Old Testament, along with its additional books (Apocrypha), which are not part of the Masoretic Text. (The Masoretic Text is the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible regarded almost universally as the official version of the Tanakh.) Since the Jewish canon does not include Apocrypha, the Protestant OT canon does not contain it either.
With regard to the NT canon, all Christians follow the Council of Hippo Regius (393 AD) and the third Council of Carthage (397 AD). At these two councils, the New Testament, in the form as we know it today, a collection of twenty-seven books, was officially acknowledged as the Scriptures inspired by God. These books of the NT were recognized as written by either an apostle or a companion of the apostles. The two councils represent a reliable historic testimony of the formation of the NT canon because they expressed the view of majority of the early Christians. We also believe that God guided the early Christians to recognize which books were canonical, which thereby led to the official recognition at these two councils. The belief that God guided the early Church towards official recognition of the NT canon is based on the biblical promises of divine preservation of God's word.
The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. (Psalms 12:6-7)
For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations. (Psalms 100:5)
The works of his hands are verity and judgment; all his commandments are sure. They stand fast for ever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness. (Psalms 111:7-8)
I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him. (Ecclesiastes 3:14)
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:8)
Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. (Matthew 24:35).
It follows that it was God who produced the canon of the NT, and not the Church, because it was God who guided the Church to recognize which books were prophetically inspired.
The Church did not originate the Bible. Its inspiration is divine, not ecclesiastical. It stands or falls because of its relationship to God, not to the Church. Moreover, any official action of the Church is late. We do not find it before the last part of the fourth century. But by then the canon had to all its intents and purposes been decided.12
Stephen Voorwinde observes the significance of the wording of the conciliar decisions:
The wording of the conciliar decisions is also significant here. The decrees are never in the form: "This council decrees that henceforth such and such books are to be canonical." The Church never attempted to confer canonicity. The Church did not give authority to the canon, rather it recognized its authority. Hence the conciliar decrees have the form: "This council declares that these are the books which have always been held to be canonical." It would therefore be truer to say that the canon selected itself than that the Church selected it. Canonicity is something in the book itself, something that God has given to it, not a favoured status that the Church confers upon it.13
Sola Scriptura and Fallibility of Human Interpretation
1. The Need for an Infallible Institution?
An important consequence of Sola Scriptura is that our interpretation of the Scriptures is fallible - we might be wrong in our understanding of God's Revelation. Due to our fallible nature and our limited knowledge, we have disagreements about the interpretation of the Scriptures, especially with regard to the question of doctrine: whether a particular doctrine is taught in the Bible, e.g., Calvinism versus Arminianism, divine determinism versus the Open View of God, the Anabaptist versus the Protestant view of baptism, etc.
How can the Scriptures be a sufficient guide seen in the light of our fallible interpretations and disagreements? If our understanding of God's Revelation is fallible, how can we be sure that our understanding is correct? Would not this constitute a need for an institution in the Church offering infallible authoritative interpretations of Scripture, e.g., the Roman Catholic Magisterium, Ecumenical Synods, etc.? Let us call such an institution an infallible institution. The question is whether we need an infallible institution safeguarding us from wrong interpretation of the Scriptures.
The following are the Churches teaching that there is a need for an infallible institution due to their denial of Sola Scriptura:
- the Roman Catholic Church
- the Eastern Orthodox Churches
- the Oriental Orthodox Churches
- the Eastern Catholic Churches
- the Assyrian Church of the East
- Christians of St. Thomas (also known as Malabar Christians), which are further divided into four groups:
- Syrian Jacobite
- Mar Thomite
We will, therefore, in this article, refer to all these Churches with the term Catholic Orthodox Churches. It is interesting to note that there is a division and disagreements among Churches that deny Sola Scriptura, given the fact that the problem of division is exactly the thing that prompted their denial of Sola Scriptura. Thus, it seems that an infallible institution or authority cannot safeguard an absolute unity in the Church. In the next section, we will look more closely at the divisions in the Catholic Orthodox Churches - divisions having a fundamentally different character than those among the Churches subscribing to Sola Scriptura.
Catholic Orthodox Churches insist on the claim of apostolic succession: the claim that their bishops represent a direct, uninterrupted line of continuity from the Apostles of Jesus Christ. According to this teaching, bishops possess certain special powers handed down to them from the Apostles; these consist primarily of the right to confirm church members, to ordain priests, to consecrate other bishops, and to rule over the clergy and church members in their diocese (an area made up of several congregations).14 However, it should be noted that not only Catholic Orthodox Churches hold the doctrine of apostolic succession; the Swedish Lutheran and Anglican churches also accept the same doctrine and believe that the only valid ministry is based on bishops whose office has descended from the Apostles. This does not mean, however, that each of these groups necessarily accepts the ministries of the other groups as valid. Roman Catholics, for example, generally regard the ministry of the Eastern Orthodox churches as valid, whereas they do not accept the Anglican ministry.15
If it is held that apostolic succession is an infallible institution16 that would safeguard the unity of Church, it has failed miserably to do its job, seen in the light of divisions of Churches that claim to trace their lineage to the Twelve Apostles. However, it is not necessary to hold the view that apostolic succession is an infallible institution, since certain Lutheran Churches accept both the principle of Sola Scriptura and the doctrine of apostolic succession. According to the Protestant understanding, apostolic succession is a faithful succession of apostolic teaching.
From a Protestant perspective, this authority and teaching is not through an unbroken lineage of succession, but through their teaching contained in the Scriptures. In other words, Protestants believe in apostolic succession, but believe that this succession is a succession in teaching, not necessarily in person.17
Another candidate for having the status of infallible institution is the institution of Ecumenical Councils (or Synods). Generally speaking, an ecclesiastic council (or a synod) is a conference of bishops convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice. If an ecclesiastic conference consists of bishops from the entire Christian church, such a council is denoted as ecumenical. Nevertheless, there are disagreements on the question of constituting features of an ecumenical council among Christians who have the claim of apostolic succession. For instance, according to the Roman Catholic doctrine, a council is not ecumenical without the papal presence, nor are its decrees binding until they have been promulgated by the pope. All other Churches of Christianity would deny such a doctrine.
The next sections address the problems inherent in the view that there is a need for an infallible institution.
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2. Problems with the Source of Infallibility of Human Institutions
The problem with infallibility of human institutions in the post-apostolic era of the Church is that there is no valid source of its infallibility. The only guarantee for ensuring infallibility is that the members of the institution are prophets. Only prophets have the authority to issue infallible, true declarations. It can be argued that the biblical canon would be open if the ministry of a prophet were still in operation.18It can also be argued that if we accept Continuationism with regard to the prophetic ministry, we would be committed to the view that new prophets have the same authority as the foundational prophets Jeremiah and John the Apostle.19 New revelations given by modern prophets would be of a canonical character, i.e., could be regarded as holy and infallible. However, the prospect of founding an infallible institution is impossible if there are no more prophets. And yet, why could not an infallible institution be constituted by Ecumenical Councils (or Synods) or be in the form of an apostolic succession?
The history of the Church teaches us that the institution of apostolic succession has not safeguarded the Church from doctrinal disagreements among its bishops. On the other hand, Ecumenical Councils were formed to find resolutions of numerous doctrinal conflicts among bishops. For this reason, we will not particularly deal with the doctrine of apostolic succession, but rather with the question of Ecumenical Councils, and whether they can act as a form of an infallible institution that has the power to successfully guide the Church towards unity. Our answer to the question of Ecumenical Councils is negative for the following reason: there is no guarantee that God would always guide council members to reach the right decisions.
Is every ecclesiastic synod (council) infallible? Is the Holy Spirit "obliged" to descend upon the participants, simply because they who convened it are Bishops? Just because a Synod strives to be called and be recognized as "Ecumenical", does that mean the Holy Spirit is necessarily "obliged" to validate its decisions? Are the decisions of an ecclesiastic Synod binding for Christians - like the commands of a general to his subordinates - if those decisions conflict with the Faith and the doctrine of the Church up until that time?20
There are many clear examples of Ecumenical Councils that were not guided by God, where a synodal decision was in outright contradiction with former synodal decisions. For instance, at the First Council of Nicaea (325), which is also commonly regarded as the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church, the Nicene Creed was formulated and Arianism21 was condemned as a heresy. However, at the four ecclesiastic Councils held in Sirmium (347, 351, 357 and 358) Arianism was supported.22At the double Council of Rimini and Seleucia (the so called "twin synods") convened in 359 AD by Arian-minded Emperor Constantius for the resolution of the Arian quarrels, the Arian creed was once again accepted, thus contradicting with the First Council of Nicaea.23
However, one might object by pointing out that the decisions made by the ecclesiastic Councils of Sirmium and the Twin Synods were condemned by the first Council of Constantinople, where the Nicene Creed was reenacted. Some would further point out that these pro-Arian Councils are not even considered Ecumenical Councils. To such objections we could reply with the question: "By what criterion should pro-Arian Councils be denied the status of Ecumenical Councils?" They were obviously not local Councils, but Councils where all bishops of the Roman Empire were invited by the Emperor himself. So, why would we not regard these pro-Arian Councils as Ecumenical? What makes the first Council of Nicaea ecumenical, but not these pro-Arian Councils? The doctrinal criterion, namely that these Councils promulgated a false doctrine, cannot be used under the assumption that Sola Scriptura is a false principle, because the whole point with the Ecumenical Councils is that they act as the final authority on the doctrinal questions, or as the ultimate arena of resolution of doctrinal disputes. The institution of Ecumenical Councils act as an ultimate arbiter of truth precisely because the sufficiency of the Bible as the final arbiter of truth is denied. Thus, in this context, the problem that a Catholic Orthodox Christian faces when they deny the validity of pro-Arian Councils, is that their denial appears to be groundless. On what grounds can Arianism be rejected when there are contradictory Church Councils on this issue? The appeal to the Bible would be problematic because both parties, ex hypothesis contend that the Bible is not sufficient to resolve the issue. However, if the Bible is sufficient to resolve the issue, i.e., through an application of sound principles of interpretation, it would be superfluous to appeal to a synodic authority.
Another possible objection to our historical observation is that pro-Arian Councils were biased because of the political influence of the pro-Arian Emperor Constantius. However, the same can be said about the First Council of Constantinople, since the Emperor Theodosius, who was a strong adherent to the Nicene Creed, summoned the First Council of Constantinople. He and his wife held a strong campaign to end Arianism.
It should be observed that the Council of Nicaea was unsuccessful in ending the Christological controversy, since Arianism and semi-Arianism were two major forces in the fourth century; many bishops of the Eastern provinces questioned the wording of the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed teaches that the Son of God shares the same divine nature as God. It is this concept of sameness, in Greek homoousia, that was disputed.24 Thus, the First Ecumenical Council was not regarded as sufficiently authoritative to end all Christological disputes concerning the divine nature of Christ. Consequently, we see that a Catholic Orthodox Christian faces the same problem of divisions due to the insufficiency of Ecumenical Councils, i.e., their infallible rule of faith, to end all disputes.
The above shows that there is a fundamental disagreement concerning the question of which Councils should be regarded as Ecumenical; the disagreement is of a fundamental character because it ultimately revolves around the question of the rule of faith, which is the subject matter of the next section.
Our point is that there is no guarantee that God would guide bishops at the Ecumenical meetings to reach the right doctrinal conclusions. This point is valid given the fact that there is no neutral doctrinal ground for a denial of the ecumenical status of Councils promulgating false doctrines, such as proArian Councils. Therefore, as a conclusion of the above, an infallible institution cannot be constituted by the decisions of Ecumenical Councils (or Synods) concerning doctrinal questions of the Scriptures.
It is quite ironic that the main motivating factor behind the denial of Sola Scriptura is the very problem of doctrinal divisions that are also present among Catholic Orthodox Christians. Therefore, the Catholic Orthodox denial of Sola Scriptura is self-refuting if based upon the the fact of doctrinal divisions, since neither are the Ecumenical Councils sufficient safeguard against divisions among Christians. The point of insufficiency of an Ecumenical Council as a safeguard against doctrinal divisions can be generalized, namely that infallibility is not a guarantee for an absolute unity in the Church. This general point is the topic of the next section.
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3. Catholic Orthodox Disagreements Compared to the Disagreements Among Adherents of Sola Scriptura
The principal Catholic Orthodox objection against Sola Scriptura is that the Scriptures alone cannot safeguard the Church from divisions and doctrinal disagreements. However, an adherent of Sola Scriptura can equally point out that the Scriptures with a supposedly infallible institution (or interpreter) is likewise impotent to safeguard the Church from divisions.
The Scriptures are the only rule of faith for Christians accepting Sola Scriptura. On the other hand, Christians denying Sola Scriptura have a different rule of faith. The cardinal problem for a Catholic Orthodox Christian is to define their own rule of faith. In the process of defining it, there are a lot of divisions among them. As a consequence, they are divided into several Churches with separate forms of rites and ecclesiastic governments.25 Here are some issues which divide Catholic Orthodox Churches:
- the question of which councils should be followed
- the question of whether they are infallible
- disagreements on ecclesiastic government
For instance, the Oriental Orthodox Churches follow only the first three Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church, while the Eastern Orthodox Churches follow seven Ecumenical Councils.26 All these Churches claim to trace their lineage to the Apostles (apostolic succession), but yet they disagree on the fundamental question of the rule of faith. Thus, we see that (alleged) apostolic succession cannot safeguard the Church from divisions.
The kind of disagreement considered above was a disagreement among a group of church organizations. However, there are a lot of disputes within each church organization as well. For instance, there are divisions among Roman Catholics.
Catholics disagree with each other. (...) Some interpret the Bible more allegorically, some more literally. Some are young earth creationists. Others are old earth evolutionists. Some believe that papal infallibility has been exercised twice in church history. Others believe it's been exercised more often. Catholics disagree with each other about predestination, the salvation of non-Catholics, which sins are mortal, eschatology, spiritual gifts, and a lot of other issues.27
Compared to Protestant disagreements, the Roman Catholics do not have any advantage.
[A]s orthodox Catholics know well, the scandal of liberalism is as great inside the Catholic church as it is outside of it. When Catholic apologists claim there is significantly more doctrinal agreement among Catholics than Protestants, they must mean between orthodox Catholics and all Protestants (orthodox and unorthodox) - which, of course, is not a fair comparison.
Only when one chooses to compare things like the mode and candidate for baptism, church government, views on the Eucharist, and other less essential doctrines are there greater differences among orthodox Protestants. When, however, we compare the differences with orthodox Catholics and orthodox Protestants or with all Catholics and all Protestants on the more essential doctrines, there is no significant edge for Catholicism. This fact negates the value of the alleged infallible teaching Magisterium of the Roman Catholic church. In point of fact, Protestants seem to do about as well as Catholics on unanimity of essential doctrines with only an infallible Bible and no infallible interpreters of it!28
Jason Engwer made an interesting observation concerning the Roman Catholic objection to the divisions among adherents of Sola Scriptura. The Roman Catholic apologists are very quick to point out that adherents of Sola Scriptura have numerous divisions, while the Roman Catholic Church has unity. However, such comparison is false, since what a Roman Catholic compares is one organization to a group of organizations. We would have expected that a single organization would have a greater organizational unity than a group of organizations. However, when comparing one organization to another, the Roman Catholic Church has no advantage.
When opponents of sola scriptura point to the large number of separate organizations that advocate sola scriptura, then contrast that with the unity among the members of their organization, they're making an invalid comparison. What they're saying is, "Our organization has more organizational unity than your group of organizations." Of course it does. One organization always has, by definition, more organizational unity than a group of organizations. It couldn't be any other way. It doesn't prove much to say that Catholics, for example, have organizational unity with one another, whereas evangelicals don't. By definition, to be Catholic involves belonging to the Roman Catholic denomination. It would be impossible for Catholics not to have organizational unity with one another. Similarly, every member of a Baptist or Methodist denomination has organizational unity with every other member of that organization. But within any organization, including the ones that reject sola scriptura, there can be all sorts of disagreements among liberals, moderates, and conservatives.29
There is much more serious disagreement among the Roman Catholics, like the following one, which shows how adherents of Sola Scriptura are actually in advantage:
It's true that groups such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have disagreements among themselves, just as there are disagreements among those who adhere to sola scriptura. In that sense, we're all on equal footing. But there's another sense in which adherents of sola scriptura are actually in advantage.
Evangelicals agree about what their rule of faith is. They follow a 66-book canon of scripture. But what is the rule of faith among those who reject sola scriptura? Not only do they disagree in their interpretations of their rule of faith, like advocates of sola scriptura do, but they also disagree among themselves about what their rule of faith is to begin with. Catholics, for example, disagree among themselves about which papal decrees, council rulings, etc. are infallible and which are not. Catholics not only disagree with each other in interpreting their rule of faith, but they also disagree about the canon of that rule of faith. A Catholic, an Eastern Orthodox, or an Anglican may refer to how he follows "the church" or "tradition", but he's unable to define just what that is. He can't cite something comparable to the evangelical's 66-book canon.
If they can't even define what their rule of faith is, and there's no specific, compelling evidence that their rule of faith is infallible, whatever it is, aren't they in an even worse situation than the evangelicals they criticize? (...) I pose this question, then, to opponents of sola scriptura. What is your rule of faith, and how can you verify it and interpret it without facing the same difficulties that you criticize in association with sola scriptura?30
Julie Staples makes a similar observation in her debate with Apolonio Latar concerning the Roman Catholic conception of tradition:
The fact is: the Roman Catholic concept of Tradition is never defined confidently by Rome or Rome's proponents. Rather, Tradition is a very nebulous term, shape-shifting into whatever form is needed at the time by a Roman Catholic apologist.
Usually, we find that only a general appeal to tradition is employed by the Roman Catholic. Their appeal never goes beyond this, however and leaves us to wonder if there exists an extrabiblical Pauline or Johannine form of tradition. One would think the defining doctrines of such a tradition would have been preserved and could be easily outlined; in other words that I would be able to verifiably link the Marian dogmas to the Pauline, extrabiblical tradition, etc . This puts the Roman Catholic at a bit of a quandary; as if they cannot succinctly define tradition there's no way of knowing whether one is being true to that tradition. Hence, the conclusion can be drawn that "Tradition" lacks a verifiable heritage with the apostles. How then can the Roman Catholic be certain it is an inspired rule of faith?31
Robert Godfrey argues in the same vein:
Our Roman opponents, while making much of tradition, will never really define tradition or tell you what its content is. Tradition is a word that can be used in a variety of ways. It can refer to a school of understanding the Scriptures, such as the Lutheran tradition. It can refer to traditions - supposively from the apostles - that are not in the Bible. It can refer to developing traditions in the history of the church that are clearly not ancient in origin. Usually, in [the writings of] the ancient fathers of the church, the word 'tradition' refers to the standard interpretation of the Bible among them. And we Protestants value such tradition.32
It is evident that Roman Catholics have divisions and that there were numerous schisms as the result of intra-Catholic disputes. In some periods, there were even two popes! Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, there have been many disputes, resulting in many schisms: the Nestorian Schism, the Chalcedonian Schism, the Photian Schism, the East-West Schism, the Western Schism, etc. The East-West Schism, for instance, prompts the question: why would we not follow the Eastern Orthodox Church, which has the same claim of apostolic succession? How should we determine which tradition is the right one?
The historical fact of schisms is illustrative of numerous inter-Catholic disputes among bishops and cardinals. For instance, the Western Schism (or Papal Schism) was caused by inter-Catholic disputes among cardinals for political power. This very fact shows that the Catholic tradition is not immune to divisions and disputes, and, as such, it seems to be an insufficient authoritative guide for the Church. It is most striking that the Roman Catholic objection against followers of Sola Scriptura that highlights their divisions is self-refuting seen in light of the fact that the Catholic tradition itself is not immune to disagreements among its bishops and cardinals. As Peter Ruckman lucidly observes:
The infallible popes often have a hard time agreeing to what is infallible and what isn't.
Alexander V said Gregory XII was a heretic (Catholic Encyclopedia, I, p. 28); Clement VII burned all of the Catholic bibles approved by Pope Sixtus V (Catholic Encyclopedia, II, pp. 411, 412; XIV, p. 110); Clement XI condemned the propositions of Pius X (Catholic Dictionary, p. 82).33
With regard to the Jesuit missionary work in China, Ruckman observes:
In China the Jesuits went along with a variety of heathen ceremonies and practices to get "converts" quicker. When they did this, some of the Dominicans and Franciscans objected; they were supported by the infallible pope (Innocent X, 1645) but were immediately overruled by the second infallible pope (Alexander VII, 1656).34
Yes, the Roman Catholic Church has unity, but so do many other Christian traditions, such as various Anabaptist ones: Mennonite, Hutterite, Bohemian Brothers, Free Brethren, Evangelical Baptists, etc. Disagreements between Anabaptist groups of Christians are indeed minor; in fact, divisions among Christians of Anabaptist and Brethren traditions are comparable to those among the numerous Roman Catholic orders. These groups respect each other and can fellowship together. They also share a long history of heavy persecution by both Roman Catholics and Protestants. What is common to all these groups is pacifism: their denial to go to war against people of other beliefs, which can be attributed to their obedience to Christ's Sermon on the Mount.
Thus, ultimately, we end up with the question of interpretation: which interpretation is the right one? The Roman Catholic denial of Sola Scriptura is, after all, a matter of interpretation of the same Holy Scriptures that are accepted as unquestionably infallible.
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4. Absolute versus Fundamental Unity
We have observed that neither the Scriptures alone nor the Scriptures coupled with an "infallible interpreter" can safeguard the Church from doctrinal divisions. However, are divisions necessarily bad? They are not, as long as the fundamental unity of the Church is upheld. The point is that we are not concerned with the absolute unity, but rather the fundamental unity of the Church. Absolute unity of the Church does not allow any dissent on the question of doctrines and practices of the Church, whereas the fundamental unity of the Church allows for minor disagreements, i.e., disagreements on minor or secondary issues. How is the fundamental unity of the Church preserved? The answer is very simple: sound principles of interpretation ensures the fundamental unity of the Church. As a valid argument follows the principles of logic, so does a plausible interpretation follow sound principles of interpretation.
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We have observed that Sola Scriptura is a biblically founded principle and that objections against it are easily met. We have also observed that the principal objection to Sola Scriptura is self-refuting: divisions among adherents of Sola Scriptura cannot be a reason for rejecting it, given the numerous divisions among Catholic Orthodox Christians (where the term Catholic Orthodox Christians refers to both Roman Catholic and many different Orthodox traditions; see the list of Catholic Orthodox Churches at the beginning of section "Sola Scriptura and fallibility of human interpretation" and endnote 25). Catholic Orthodox divisions illustrate that an "infallible interpreter" cannot safeguard the unity of the Church. We have also observed that traditions respecting Sola Scriptura have as much unity as the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, it is not a goal to maintain absolute unity of Church, where no dissent is allowed, but rather to preserve the fundamental unity of Church, where minor disagreements are permitted, but not disagreement on fundamental doctrines. In other words, as long as the fundamental unity is preserved, doctrinal disagreements on secondary issues are allowed. The Bible provides sufficient guidance for Christians to keep the fundamental unity of the Church. We have also seen how fundamental unity of the Church is maintained, namely by following sound principles of interpretation of the Scriptures.
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1 The post-apostolic Church is the Church in the period after the death of the last Apostle. It is the period starting at the end of the first century and ending with the rapture of the Church in the future. [Back to the text]
2 Michael Patton, section "Solo Scriptura in: "In Defense of Sola Scriptura - Part One - Authority Across the Spectrum"[Back to the text]
3 Michael Patton, section "Solo Scriptura" in: "In Defense of Sola Scriptura - Part One - Authority Across the Spectrum"[Back to the text]
4 The ninth premise is independent of Cessationist assumptions. Most Continuationists would agree that the ministry of an apostle was primarily concerned with offering a testimony of Christ's bodily resurrection, and, therefore, it was a unique ministry only possible in the apostolic period of the Church, i.e., the first century AD. As noted above, the post-apostolic Church is the Church in the period after the death of the last apostle. It is the period starting at the end of the first century and ending with the rapture of the Church in the future. More about the ministry of an apostle, see the section "Apostleship and the Testimony of Christ's Resurrection."[Back to the text]
5 The tenth premise is independent of Cessationist assumptions. Most Continuationists would agree that there are no more prophets who can issue canonical prophecies. [Back to the text]
6 Salvation from spiritual death is salvation from ending in a state of eternal separation from God. [Back to the text]
7 If interested in the question of the cessation of the charismatic gifts, see our article "The End of Charismatic Gifts" and our contribution to the Wikipedia article "Cessationism versus Continuationism". [Back to the text]
9 According to such a view, all books of the OT were given by prophetic inspiration, cf. 2 Timothy 3:16. Likewise, all books of the NT were written by divine inspiration, and, thus, were prophetically inspired. According to our view of the ministry of apostles, all apostles had the gifts of prophecy, and therefore were prophets as well. Those writers that were not apostles were close companions of apostles, and were endowed by the gift of prophecy. The evangelist Mark was a companion of both the apostle Paul and the apostle Barnabas, cf. Acts 14:14, Acts 12:25, Acts 15:37-40, Col 4:10, 2 Tim 4:11. The evangelist Luke was a companion of the apostle Paul, cf. 2 Tim 4:11. [Back to the text]
11 See Robert C. Newman, "The Council of Jamnia and The Old Testament Canon". [Back to the text]
12 Leon Morris, "Canon of the New Testament," in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, volume 2, edited by G.G. Cohen, Marshallton, Delaware: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1968, 337, quoted in: Stephen Voorwinde, "The Formation of the New Testament Canon."[Back to the text]
14 "apostolic succession." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010. [Back to the text]
15 "apostolic succession." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010. [Back to the text]
16 For instance, if it is claimed that the authority of the Twelve Apostles has been inherited, and this authority is regarded as infallible, then apostolic succession would be regarded as an infallible institution. The Roman Catholic view of the succession of Roman Catholic Popes is an example of such an infallible kind of apostolic succession. [Back to the text]
17 Michael Patton, "In Defense of Sola Scriptura - Part Six - Apostolic Succession?". [Back to the text]
18 For Cessationist arguments showing that the biblical canon would be open if the ministry of a prophet were still in operation, see the sections "The Ministry of a Prophet" and "Prophecy and Canonicity" in the article: "The End of Charismatic Gifts". [Back to the text]
19Idem[Back to the text]
21 Arianism is a doctrine first proposed early in the fourth century by the Alexandrian presbyter Arius. It affirmed that Christ is not truly divine but a created being. An opposing doctrine to Arianism is Trinitarianism, which affirms that God's Being consists of three distinct divine persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each divine person of Godhead is uncreated and eternal. [Back to the text]
24 Arianism teaches that the Son is unlike (anhomoios) the Father, while semi-Arianism teaches that the Son is like (homoios) the Father. [Back to the text]
25 To repeat the list of Churches denying Sola Scriptura and which have the claim of apostolic succesion: (1) the Roman Catholic Church, (2) the Eastern Orthodox Churches, (3) the Oriental Orthodox Churches, (4) the Eastern Catholic Churches, (5) the Assyrian Church of the East, and (5) the Christians of St. Thomas (also known as Malabar Christians), who are further divided into four groups: (i) Syro-Malabar, (ii) Syro-Malankara, (iii) Syrian Jacobite, and (iv) Mar Thomite. [Back to the text]
27 Jason Engwer, "Jason Engwer: First Rebuttal" in the debate with Phil Porvaznik on the question, "Was the Roman Catholic Church Established by Christ?" [Back to the text]
29 From Jason Engwer's former website, which is closed now. [Back to the text]
30 From Jason Engwer's former website, which is closed now. Jason Engwer similarly used this kind of argument in his first rebuttal of Phil Porvaznik, which is a part of the debate, "Was the Roman Catholic Church Established by Christ?"[Back to the text]
33 Peter S. Ruckman, The History of the New Testament Church, Vol I, p. 382, coupled with footnote 28 for Chapter 17. 2nd printing 1989, Bible Baptist Bookstore. [Back to the text]
34 Peter S. Ruckman, The History of the New Testament Church, Vol I, p. 382. [Back to the text]