Sola Scriptura is Self-Defeating & False if Not in the Bible

Sola Scriptura is Self-Defeating & False if Not in the Bible February 14, 2017

vs. Kevin Johnson


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I’ve seen many Protestants deny the Catholic counter-reply that if sola Scriptura isn’t taught in the Bible, it is a self-defeating belief, and therefore untrue. It certainly is self-defeating if in fact it can’t be found in the Bible (as I maintain). The inexorable, unarguable reasoning works as follows:

1. Sola Scriptura (SS) is the view that the Scripture is the final authority and only infallible one in the Christian life, higher than councils and Tradition and the Church, none of which are infallible (this is what is known as the formal sufficiency of Scripture as a rule of faith; Catholics deny this), and that every true Christian doctrine is found in Scripture, either implicitly or explicitly (material sufficiency of Scripture, which Catholics agree with).

2. If SS can be found taught in Scripture (and if Scripture teaches what sola Scriptura denies: that neither Tradition nor Church possess binding, infallible authority, as Scripture does), then it is not only self-consistent, but a true and a binding belief (just like anything else taught in inspired, infallible Scripture: God’s revelation).

3. But SS cannot be found in Scripture (Protestants have not succeeded in showing the contrary, that it is there), and Scripture indeed teaches that Tradition and the Church possess binding, infallible authority.

4. If SS is not in Scripture then it is (by definition and nature) an “extra-biblical” tradition and a mere tradition of men. SS obviously cannot be the rule of faith, if what it entails is the Bible being the sole infallible and ultimate rule of faith, because that means that whatever is included in the Christian faith (let alone the rule of faith) is found in Scripture (since it is the rule of faith, according to SS).

5. But SS is not in the Bible; thus it cannot possibly be a guide as to the status of the Bible itself with regard to authority and its relation to Church and Tradition. It is merely one of many “traditions of men” that Protestants (again, quite inconsistently) detest when it comes to Catholic distinctives which they claim are “unbiblical” and “extrabiblical.”

6. SS itself condemns extra-biblical traditions, and Protestants condemn mere traditions of men. These cannot be binding and obligatory upon believers.

7. Therefore, SS cannot be true by its own principles (if it isn’t in the Bible itself)! It is self-defeating (and nothing self-defeating can be true). Nor can it be true by ostensible Protestant principles. And it cannot be binding because all binding principles under the Protestant system must be found in Scripture itself.

8. If it’s not in the Bible (or at the very least, clearly deducible from it), it can’t be part of the Christian faith, and it obviously can’t speak to whether the Bible is the sole rule of faith, because (not being in the Bible) that would mean that a non-biblical tradition has more authority than the Bible itself — the very thing which the principle itself denies. So it is self-defeating and logical nonsense.

9. Of course, the canon of Scripture (quite similarly to this Protestant conundrum) is another non-biblical doctrine depending on Tradition and Church authority, which is also a huge epistemological difficulty for Protestants, but another issue.

10. Ergo, SS can not only not be true, but it cannot be binding either, and whatever is not binding cannot be a rule of faith (and untruths obviously cannot be binding upon Christian believers, as God’s will).

11. Moreover, if SS is not the Protestant rule of faith, then they must find another coherent, true rule, and that necessarily, inevitably falls back upon some sort of authoritative Tradition and/or Church authority, thus putting them on the same exact epistemological and ecclesiological plane as Orthodox and Catholics and (well, in theory, anyway) Anglicans, who all appeal to an authoritative Tradition in their belief-structure and epistemology.

12. Which Tradition and which Church, then, shall a Protestant choose (SS having failed and having been shown to be a false principle)? Well, Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Then we enter into the controversy as to which is more worthy of allegiance.

But I am far less concerned with Orthodoxy than I am with Protestantism. I feel that we ought to stress our commonality with the Orthodox, rather than wrangle with them, which is why I removed almost all of my Internet papers on Orthodoxy (though I plan to probably compile them into a book).

Meanwhile, the Protestant rule of faith is thoroughly incoherent, inconsistent, unbiblical, unhistorical (it was never held to any appreciable extent till the 16th century), and unworkable in practice.

Let Protestants keep trying in vain to find this teaching in Holy Scripture. I’ve yet to see that, and I’ve written more about this issue than any other in my apologetic endeavors. If it isn’t there, it either 1) can no longer be held, or 2) must be radically modified in definition. And if #2 is the case, I fail to see how it can even continue being what it is. If it incorporates tradition within its parameters as binding and obligatory, and/or infallible, it ceases to be what it is; it loses its very nature and essence.

Kevin Johnson (words in blue), an articulate Reformed Protestant, wrote in a comment in a previous thread:

I think perhaps you Roman Catholic guys have been shell-shocked by fundamentalist Protestants for a long time.

“Shell-shocked”? LOL I’m still waiting for those guys to get off a shot that hits anywhere near us! LOL The problem ain’t being shell-shocked, it is either falling asleep or dying laughing at the sheer stupidity and goofiness of their claims, such as Eric Svendsen claiming that we raise Mary to the level of the Holy Trinity, or James White creating an absolute dichotomy between sacraments and grace, which would exclude St. Augustine and Martin Luther from the Body of Christ.

. . . so long that perhaps it is difficult to even conceive of a Protestant actually having credible arguments for what they believe.

I have no problem conceiving that at all. Usually that is the case (at least above the level of premises). I simply deny that this is one instance where a coherent case can be made. It is not only built upon false premises; it is self-defeating, which renders it unworthy of belief. And I am referring to all the most sophisticated versions of sola Scriptura, not the fundamentalist extreme Bible-Only or SOLO Scriptura stuff.

A more balanced view would recognize that men like Calvin and Luther made their impact because while they may not have always been right they were certainly formidable opponents to the Catholic clergy of their day and their arguments did make sense to at least some of the world they lived in.

Of course, but that is another issue. Here we are discussing the principles of authority that they introduced, which were contrary to the received Tradition.

. . . the argument for sola scriptura is not a matter of proof-texting different verses,

Whatever you call recourse to biblical argument and data, it is absolutely necessary in this case, by the very nature of the beast, as shown above.

rather it is a recognition of the authority inherent in the Word of God and a realizing that the whole text of Scripture must be taken into account on the matter.

Catholics don’t disagree with that, but it doesn’t settle the issues of whether 1) SS is true, and 2) whether it is in fact self-defeating. That question has to be dealt with of its own accord; again, because of the specific nature of the thing being discussed, which necessarily involves making an argument from the Bible itself. The Protestant task remains to prove the doctrine from Scripture, and they have not done so. If you say it is deduced, then we can come back and say that a binding Tradition and Church is taught explicitly in Scripture (both notions being fatal to sola Scriptura).

Fundamental interpretive issues like these should be discussed prior to proof-texting your way in or out of sola scriptura.

Sure, but this doesn’t resolve the issue at hand, at all. Scripture is authoritative. It has inherent authority. All of it must be taken into account. All of these things are wholeheartedly accepted by Catholics. But your task is to show that Scripture somehow excludes the binding nature of Tradition and the Church and asserts this principle. And that clearly must be demonstrated in Scripture itself.

If it can’t be found, it collapses, because sola Scriptura would then be an unbiblical tradition of men, which is contrary to its very definition and nature. Anyone can see this, if they can step aside from partisan concerns for the moment, and look at it purely in terms of the logical factors involved.

Otherwise, you have your verses and tradition and I have mine.

That’s what the situation reduces to at length, anyway. Sola Scriptura is simply an entrenched, arbitrary, obligatory Protestant Tradition. But it makes no sense because it can’t be proven from the Bible — not even indirectly — and much in the Bible contradicts it.

In a comment on the Pontificator’s [Fr. Al Kimel’s] blog, Kevin offered the usual rejoinder, that his opponents (in this instance, an Anglican priest) do not understand sola Scriptura and private judgment:

Your critique may indeed speak loudly to the more extreme modern elements of Protestantism that has divorced itself from a fuller understanding of the original Reformation vision. However, your comments do no damage to the doctrine of sola scriptura as it was framed by Calvin and several of the historic Reformed Confessions . . .

Then he goes on to state the outlines of sola Scriptura:

The Bible is self-interpreting. It does interpret itself. I refer you to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph 9 which says: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself…”

Thus, we have a tradition (the Westminster Confession) determining something about the Bible, in the very act of defining the notion that nothing outside the Scripture can do so. The blindness to one’s own “philosophy” or “tradition” here fits in nicely with sola Scriptura. But where in Scripture does it teach that the Church cannot infallibly interpret it (or for that matter, where does it deny that Tradition and the Church can determine the canon: which books are in the Bible in the first place?).

Second, the Bible does belong to an obvious genre–it is the Word of God and uniquely so–as such it has a self-attesting authority as His Word and its revelatory nature dictates that it alone is the guide as to how it should be interpreted.

No one denies that the Bible is unique. But it doesn’t follow from that that nothing outside of it can be an aid to interpretation. In fact, this is denied. To give two examples from the Old Testament itself:

1) Ezra 7:6, 10: Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment, banishment, loss of goods, and even death (7:25-26).

2) Nehemiah 8:1-8: Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem (8:3). In 8:7 we find thirteen Levites who assisted Ezra, and “who helped the people to understand the law.” Much earlier, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chronicles 17:8-9). In Nehemiah 8:8: “. . . they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” The New Testament is no different:

Acts 8:27-28, 30-31 And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch . . . seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah . . . So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?”

In fact, proper Reformed hermeneutics would demand that it is the guide by which all things are to be interpreted and understood.

Exactly; so this “all” would include sola Scriptura itself, the very rule of faith for the Protestant. You keep putting deeper into a rut and a pit. First, Scripture is totally clear and must interpret itself. Now it must be the source of understanding everything! So if Scripture is so clear and self-interpreting, where is sola scriptura clearly, self-evidently taught in it (as it must be)?

Because the Bible is God’s Word to men, it logically follows that not only does it mean something for us but the Scriptures also are clear to us–can anyone doubt that God the Father intended to place in His children’s hands a message that was comprehensible?;

That doesn’t logically follow, but I agree that it is plausible. Even so, it doesn’t follow (logically or as a practical matter) that the comprehensibility of the Scripture has to flow only from itself and without the aid of Church and Tradition. These things not only do not follow; the contrary is explicitly taught in Scripture.

The Jerusalem Council issued a binding decree and interpretation of Scripture on the matters of contraception and application of the Mosaic law in the New Covenant. The Bible even says that those at the Council were specially guided by the Holy Spirit:

Acts 15:28-29: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.

In the next chapter, we read that Paul, Timothy, and Silas were traveling around “through the cities,” and Scripture says that “they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). This is Church authority. They simply proclaimed the decree as true and binding — with the sanction of the Holy Spirit Himself!

Thus we see in the Bible an instance of the gift of infallibility that the Catholic Church claims for itself when it assembles in a council. This is neither sola Scriptura nor Luther’s “Bible above popes and councils” revolutionary epistemological proclamation at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Not at all . . . but it is awfully biblical!

Key to understanding the limited role of tradition in relation to interpreting the Scriptures is the fact that while both men and the Church are (you will forgive I hope these references to classic Reformed systematic theology) justified, they are not completely sanctified. Men can and do err, they sin and we all look to Christ for forgiveness daily. The same is true for the Church. The Scriptures speak of ‘both/and’–we are clothed with Christ, yet we die to sin daily. Not until the eschaton are we going to be as we should. That being the case, offering a person an infallible role for the apostles or their hearers (as you posit here), the Church, or tradition is extremely suspect.

This doesn’t follow, either, by the example of the Jerusalem Council. Those decrees were binding and understood as such by Paul, who went out and proclaimed them. It was an instance of an infallible Church giving authoritative pronouncement on biblical teachings. The same thing held for utterances of the prophets and (I should think) the apostles, when they went out and preached the gospel.

Peter in Acts 2, in his sermon in the Upper Room, and in other recorded sermons, gave an authoritative New Covenant interpretation of salvation history. It was binding before it became “inscripturated,” because it was from an apostle. The writers of Scripture itself were sinners just like the rest of us (some, like David, even murderers and adulterers). But somehow God used those sinners to write an infallible, inspired Bible.

Papal and Church infallibility is a lesser gift than what Protestants already believed with regard to the Bible. If God can use sinners to write an inspired Bible, certainly He can use sinful men to proclaim infallible teachings in Tradition, as that is merely a protection from error, not a positive quality of inspiration.

Some have argued that the Church and her traditions have been guarded and guided by the Holy Spirit–and in general I agree. However, why can we not say the same for Word of the Husband (being Christ) that we do for His Bride, the Church?

I agree. That is not our problem. But you have a huge problem because you deny the proper role for the Church and Tradition that Scripture gives them. You want to follow, rather, the watered-down version of Church and Tradition that you received from Luther and Calvin. So you lessen the status of biblical and apostolic tradition based on arbitrary traditions of men.

Are we somehow going to argue that when God speaks, His words are unintelligible to those through whom the Spirit has given new life and written these very words upon their hearts?

That is not required in the Catholic position. It is not so much a denial that Scripture is clear in the main, as it is a protest against the anti-traditional, anti-biblical exclusion of Church and Tradition from the sphere of binding authority. Nor does it rule out the role of the Church in interpretation.

While I am the first to downplay the role of the individual in salvation due to the abuses in Protestantism especially in our day, we must admit the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individual believers. If the Word is truly written on our hearts, does it not follow that we understand what that word is by the work of the Spirit?

We have no problem with that. All we are saying is that if the Holy Spirit can so guide individuals, then He can guide His Church as well (and the Bible portrays this state of affairs as being the case in actuality).

After all this, however, let me say that I do believe the Bible outlines a teaching office for the Church, that it is important both now and historically, and that our interpretation of Scripture should take into account the witness of our Fathers. However, the witness of the Fathers must be faithful to the Word of God, not vice versa.

Of course. We believe that it is. It takes faith to believe that. The problem you and Protestants have is to explain how an individual can trump a received Tradition and the authority of the Church. If you discount the Church’s binding authority because men are sinners, then you obviously have to discount every individual’s interpretation, as each person is a sinner, too!

But you don’t do that. You give the authority ultimately to the individual to decide, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, what is true and what isn’t, while you deny it to the Church. This makes no sense. And it is not biblical teaching (which is that there is a binding, authoritative [infallible] Tradition passed down and preserved in the Church).

The Church had binding authority in the Jerusalem Council. At what point did it lose this? As soon as the last apostle died (John?), then the Church lost its authority to bind men to interpretations and laws; to “bind and to loose”? That makes no sense, and no such notion can be found in Scripture itself. There is no indication that this profound authority would later be lessened and that the Bible would be the sole infallible rule of faith. That had to wait till Martin Luther, 15 centuries later.

It’s passing strange that a group which claims to be so concentrated on the Bible and opposed to traditions of men, would adopt a principle and rule of faith taken straight from a new, novel “tradition of man” (Luther), which says things about the Bible that the same Bible never teaches, and indeed, often directly opposes. There is no end to the logical and practical and unbiblical absurdities of this position.

But (again), I oppose sola Scriptura not at all because it is “difficult [for me] to even conceive of a Protestant actually having credible arguments for what they believe,” but because of the intrinsic weakness of this particular position. It fails because it cannot stand up to biblical and logical and historic Christian scrutiny, not because we are so reflexively prejudiced against it, or because we are (supposedly) opposing only caricatures of the position. If you disagree with that, then please refute the reasoning above. I’m all for observing you giving “credible arguments for what you believe.” Please do so; you are welcomed, and positively encouraged to make such an argument on my blog.

I will now reply to Kevin’s comments on the Pontificator’s blog. The latter made a reply of his own which (while brief) is well worth reprinting:

I’m afraid that I do not see how classical Reformation hermeneutics in any way avoids the problem posed by Newman on private judgment. You invoke the Westminster Confession for support, but this confession exemplifies the kind of private judgment that Newman decries:

(1) It rejects the infallibility of councils and denies their hermeneutical role as a “rule of faith” (XXXI.4).

(2) It asserts double predestination (III), which ecumenical Christianity rejects as heretical (Council of Orange).

(3) It rejects the veneration of images (XX.1), a practice that is explicitly commended and protected by the Seventh General Ecumenical Council.

(4) It asserts an understanding of Eucharist that would is rejected by both Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Lutheranism (XXIX).

The list could be expanded, but I’m sure you get my point. The Reformed faith as explicated by Westminster is, by ecumenical standards, idiosyncratic and heretical. But of course the Reformed are convinced that it faithfully explicates the written Word of God.

(Comment by Pontificator — 4/30/2004)

Now on to Kevin’s later comments:

The Westminster Confession was not cited as support for sola scriptura. The relevant portions quoted were given as an example of classic Reformation theology on the subject to help differentiate between the doctrine as it is posed in line with the original intent of the Reformation as opposed to today’s more modern version of the doctrine.

Neither Pontificator’s critique of sola Scriptura nor my own (nor Newman’s, for that matter), depend on caricaturing it in order to fight straw men. The critiques apply to original, bona fide, Reformation doctrine; it goes to the roots. No one who is reading Pontificator’s material lately can doubt that he is raising serious questions about original premises.

If you disagree, then you must demonstrate how either he or I are distorting the original Reformation conception of sola Scriptura, not merely assert it. For my part, ever since 1991 I have been operating with a definition of sola Scriptura from impeccable (mostly Reformed) sources such as R.C. Sproul, Charles Hodge, G.C. Berkouwer, and Bernard Ramm.

If you don’t like those, then there is an easy solution: please provide a definition of sola Scriptura yourself, and I will be happy to show that it suffers from just as many shortcomings and errors as the one I have been using. You can’t go on endlessly claiming your opponent is operating on a faulty definition, without actually arguing the matter at hand. At least not on my blog! LOL

That being said, I would have preferred to see interaction with what I wrote rather than side-stepping the issues and leaving a criticism of the Confession.

Amen! And I desire the same for what I wrote, too.

I confess I need to read more of Newman since it seems that much of popular Catholic apologetics these days is built off of his works–but perhaps you can tell me what he thinks of the historical fact that the Councils themselves contradict each other in certain instances–an odd thing to happen for an infallible tradition. I’m not sure his view is as realistic as some would like to admit.

Having criticized the Pontificator for “side-stepping the issues,” you proceed to do a little fancy footwork yourself, and try to switch the discussion over to alleged contradictions of councils, rather than the internal incoherence and inconsistency of sola Scriptura. I must admit that I saw more than a little humor in that irony.

. . . Again, as I have stated, the Westminster Confession was mentioned merely to point out the original doctrine of sola scriptura to those who seem content to attack a more modern caricature of it.

You need to clarify. Since I am now interacting with you, please demonstrate where anything I have written in criticism of SS would not apply to the version of it held by the Westminster divines. Again, I maintain that all versions of SS fall prey to internal incoherence and self-defeating factors, no matter how sophisticated; no matter how “impeccably Reformed” and so forth. Thank you.

But the same dilemma exists for the Magisterium. On what basis, other than the claim of the Church, do we accept the Magisterium as the authority in interpreting the Scriptures?

Nice try at switching the topic again. Which Tradition one accepts is a completely distinct and separate question from the question of whether sola Scriptura can stand up to logical, biblical, and historical scrutiny. That is the current question. If you wish to concede that you are unable to defend sola Scriptura, from the Bible or otherwise, feel free to do so, then we can move on. But I won’t change horses in mid-stream when there is a legitimate, worthwhile, highly important problem to be dealt with in the Protestant rule of faith.

This question is about the final appeal of authority.

That’s right. But when the claim is made that one position is self-defeating or otherwise quite weak in its construction, then that has to be dealt with first, before moving onto much wider discussions of choosing an authoritative tradition.

The Word comes from God–it’s authority is just as self-evident as God’s ultimate authority as God and the Church has duly recognized this authority over the centuries no matter what communion you belong to.

Of course. No one is denying that.

No one questions the authority of the words of the President of the United States when he speaks and why we think we can question the authority of the Word of God when He has clearly spoken is beyond me.

Again, I have no idea whom you think is doing that. Questioning sola Scriptura is not the same as questioning Holy Scripture. Please read this sentence five times, till it sinks in.

I think perhaps many Catholics are used to arguing with fundamentalist anti-Catholics who blame everything on Rome.

Their mentality is easy to understand, and they don’t interest me because they have nothing of substance to offer. Presently, I am dealing with a sophisticated Reformed Christian (you) who wishes to keep switching the topic to Rome whenever the going gets rough. I hope we can get beyond that, and that you will be willing to truly examine your own viewpoint, and defend it if you think you can, without ever mentioning the word “Rome”! I know you can do it if you really put your mind to it . . .

[passing over further attempts to move the discussion over the Rome’s pre-Reformation culpability]

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