Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura is a non-biblical 16th century invention

Second Sunday of November 2011:
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Francis Beckwith—who became president of the Evangelical Theological Society before returning to his boyhood Catholic faith—explains how his study of Scripture led him back to the Catholic Church. His reflections, he notes, convinced him “that sola scriptura was a 16th-century invention and, therefore, not an essential Christian doctrine.”

One of those puzzles was the relationship between the Church, Tradition, and the canon of Scripture. As a Protestant, I claimed to reject the normative role that Tradition plays in the development of Christian doctrine. But at times I seemed to rely on it. For example, on the content of the biblical canon, following the Protestants vs. the Catholic Church, I would appeal to the exclusion of the seven contested books—called deuterocanonical—as canonical by the Jewish Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90-100) as well as doubts about those books raised by some Church Fathers, including St. Jerome.

My reasoning, however, was extra-biblical. For it appealed to an authoritative leadership that has the power to recognize and certify books as canonical… based on a tradition which, as a Protestant, I thought more authoritative than the tradition that certified what has come to be known as the Catholic canon. So, ironically, the Protestant case depends on Catholic intuitions about a tradition of magisterial authority.

What of New Testament canonicity? Here, the sort of authority and tradition that apparently provided me warrant to exclude the deuterocanonical books from Scripture is missing from the Church during the development of New Testament canonicity. [Cardinal Billot explains, in his De Immutabilitate Traditionis, that the Apostolic Fathers provide nothing to back up the inspiration of the New Testament texts except II Peter 3:16 which Protestants reject. This proves that the Protestant system is a pendulum founded on thin air].

This led to two other tensions. First, in defense of the Protestant Old Testament canon, I argued that some Church Fathers disagreed and embraced what is known today as the Protestant canon. But, by employing this argumentative strategy, I conceded the central point of Catholicism: the Church is logically prior to the Scriptures. That is, if the Church, until the Council of Florence’s ecumenical declaration in 1441, can live with a certain degree of ambiguity about the content of the Old Testament canon, this means that sola scriptura was never a fundamental principle of authentic Christianity. This seems to make the Catholic argument that sola scriptura was a sixteenth-century invention and, therefore, not an essential Christian doctrine.

Second, because the list of canonical books is itself not found in Scripture—as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s apostles—any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-biblical theological knowledge. For the Catholic, this is not a problem, since the Bible is the book of the Church, and thus there is an organic unity between the fixing of the canon and the development of doctrine and Christian practice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s