Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: The sola scriptura problems (Part I)

The biggest problem you’re bound to face as an apologist is resistance to the idea of an authoritative Church.

Intellectually, we know that Christ taught only one gospel message, that certain teachings must be authentic to Christ and others not. No matter how much lip service we give to “subjective truths”, we know some things are true whether we want them to be or not, and that refusal to accept a real, objective truth is not mentally healthy.

However, for many reasons, people don’t want to accept the possibility that a select number of people have been given authority from Christ to define, preserve and promote the gospel message. Sometimes the motive is pride; sometimes it’s based on a fallacious idea of authority; sometimes the motive is sociopolitical.

Regardless of the motive, the easy answer for many Christians is to create their own gospel truth based on their own Bible study. When they do this, they follow in the intellectual tradition of Martin Luther … even if the latter would have been horrified by some of the conclusions they come to.

Over the next couple of installments of “Apologetics Toolbox”, I want to take a closer look at the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Before one even gets to the scriptural arguments against it, there are some logical and practical errors that have made this doctrine the single worst development in Christianity since the Arian heresy. Even worse, the scriptural backing is vestigial.

Part I: The central dilemma

But before we do that, we should take a moment to explain what sola scriptura is and is not supposed to be. The importance can’t be understated: how sola scriptura is supposed to work in practice and how it does work in the real world are two very different things.

According to anti-Catholic author Dr. James R. White, there are five principles to sola scriptura:

1.      Scripture, taken by itself, is sufficient to act as the regula fidei, the infallible rule of faith.
2.      All that one must believe to be a Christian is found in Scripture.
3.      That which is not found in Scripture—either directly or by necessary implication—is not binding on the Christian.
4.      Scripture reveals those things necessary for salvation.
5.      All traditions are subject to the higher authority of Scripture.[1]

White, for his part, also sets a list of things that sola scriptura is not:

1.      It is not a claim that the Bible contains all knowledge.
2.      It is not a claim that the Bible is an exhaustive catalogue of all religious knowledge.
3.      It is not a denial of the Church’s authority to teach God’s truth.
4.      It is not a denial that God’s word has, at times, been spoken.
5.      It is not a rejection of every kind or use of tradition.
6.      It is not a denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church.[2]

While we’re defining sola scriptura, it would be handy to understand what “infallible” means. “Infallible” can mean “perfect”, but it can also mean “trustworthy” or “reliable”, which is much closer to ordinary religious use. The claim of Scriptural infallibility doesn’t have to be translated into a claim that the Bible has no inaccuracies or conflicts of detail, or that we’re compelled to believe in a 144-hour creation.

Here is the logical difficulty at the center of sola scriptura: While the doctrine doesn’t deny the Church’s authority or its guidance by the Holy Spirit, it does deny that the Church teaches infallibly. Why? Because the Church is made up of humans, and humans make mistakes.

This forces us to wonder: If the Holy Spirit guides the Church to all truth (Jn 14:26, 16:13), how can the Church make mistakes—or, in this pan-Christian context, be divided—on matters of doctrine? Put the other way, if the Church can’t be relied on because it’s composed of error-prone humans, then in what sense can we say the Holy Spirit is “guiding” the Church?

When confronted with this logical contradiction, many people stumble. One person on a Catholic Answers forum tried to explain it away: “Well, just because the Holy Spirit is leading doesn’t mean that the bishops are following.” This is nonsense because the two concepts are tied together: if A leads B, then B follows A. Same thing with “guiding”: If A guides B, then B is guided by A.

This gives us a formal logical syllogism that creates a Hobson’s choice:

  • If the Holy Spirit guides the Church (Jn 14:26, 16:13), and the Holy Spirit’s guidance is reliable (Rom 3:3-4; 2 Tim 2:13), then the Church’s teachings are reliable.
  • The Church’s teachings are not reliable.
  • Therefore, either the Holy Spirit’s guidance is not reliable, or the Holy Spirit does not guide the Church.

If the minor premise is true, then we’re left with two blasphemous alternatives, either one of which vilipends God’s fidelity. But in a formal proposition such as this, the premises can’t be true and the conclusion false. So if the conclusion is false, either the major or minor premise (or both) must be false as well.

The major premise is inarguable … at least, within the confines of the Christian community. Saint Paul tells us that “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16)—literally “God-breathed” (theópneustos)—and so we believe; we must believe it to hold Scripture reliable. So the minor premise, “The Church’s teachings are not reliable”, must be wrong. White’s claim, then, that sola scriptura doesn’t deny the role of the Holy Spirit is dubious at best.

The implications of this logical error are astounding. For nigh on five centuries, Protestants have been using this doctrine as their warrant to contradict the dogmatically defined teachings of the original apostolic Church Jesus founded. And the practical result has been the fracture of the Christian community in the West.

In sum:

  • You can’t presume the Church’s lack of infallibility without implicitly contradicting the Holy Spirit’s guidance or reliability.

[1] White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (1996), pp. 59-62.
[2] Ibid., p. 59.