Note: The following is merely an essay critiquing Pastor Scott Thomas’ blog posts on Sola Scriptura. It does not respond to every single argument he makes, but is only an overview of the doctrinal issues from a Catholic perspective. Responses to more of Pastor Scott’s specific arguments agsinst the Catholic Church and in favor of Sola Scriptura will be dealt with in a separate post.
No matter which issue we take up here at DriscollWatch, whether it is about Mary, Confession, Purgatory, or whatever, we will ultimately go back to one debate: Authority. Who or what has authority to state and define Christian Doctrine? Is it a Pope? Is it the Bible? Is it Mark Driscoll? Is it individual Christians reading and interpreting the Bible on their own?
As we shall see, Mark Driscoll and his associates, such as Pastor Scott Thomas, believe that the Bible alone is a Christian’s highest authority. In his blog post on the subject, Pastor Scott is misleading in the same way that Mark Driscoll is sometimes misleading: he states what he believes, and then states that the Catholic Church teaches something different. He then defines his own view, leaving the audience the impression that the Catholic Church is opposed to everything that he said in his view, when that isn’t necessarily the case.
Take, for example, Pastor Scott’s definition of Sola Scriptura. He says, “Sola Scriptura is the doctrine that the Bible is the only infallible and inerrant authority for Christian faith, and that it contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness.” He states this in opposition to the Catholic Faith. The problem is, that not every aspect of this doctrine is opposed to the Catholic Faith. The Catholic Church, along with Christians of many other denominations, believes, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17)” Dei Verbum, which is one of the most important documents the Bishops of the Catholic Church have ever written about Sacred Scripture states, “we must acknowledge that the books of scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided in the sacred scriptures (DV, article 11).”
So if the Catholic Church believes that scripture is inerrant in things pertaining to salvation and that God deliberately placed in the scriptures everything he wished to reveal to us for our salvation then why doesn’t the Catholic Church teach Sola Scriptura?
There are several answers to this question.
The Bible does not teach the doctrine of Sola Scriptura
Sola Scriptura is a false doctrine because it doesn’t even pass its own definition. It is intrinsically irrational. If it were true that the Bible Alone contains all the knowledge for salvation in holiness, it would be necessary for the Bible to state this fact and define itself as the only pillar of truth. The simple truth, however, is that the Bible does not say this. In fact, the Bible teaches that something else is the pillar of truth. Scripture states that the church is the pillar of truth: “but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1Tim 3:15, New KJV). In another place, St. Paul mentions scripture and tradition when he exhorted his reader to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth [tradition] or by letter [scripture]. (2Thess 2:15)”
Scripture requires another source of authority to tell us which Documents are scripture.
At the close of the apostolic age there were many documents circulating throughout the world about Jesus. Some of these documents were scripture, and some of them were counterfeits. Many of the counterfeit documents even claimed authorship by apostles, like Thomas and Paul. This put early Christians in a very difficult situation because they didn’t know which documents were scripture and what were not. This problem could not be solved if scripture alone is our highest authority, because the scripture did not come with an inspired table of contents. In other words, the apostles did not leave behind a list of documents defining which books made up the scriptures. Rather, people who weren’t apostles (but possessed apostolic authority) had to make decisions about what could be read at the celebration of the Lord’s supper and which were not allowed to be read. These men, whom Christians have always called “episcopos” (a Greek word translated to “bishops,” (c.f., 1Tim 3:1) determined this list by appealing to the oral tradition passed on to them by the Apostles. If the document resonated with the tradition its apostolic roots were confirmed and it was included. If it conflicted with the tradition it was condemned. * Ultimately, the Protestant position on this question – which rejects out of hand Apostolic Tradition and the authority of Catholic bishops – is reduced to a belief in a fallible collection of infallible documents.
The Early Church did not believe in Sola Scriptura
In his blog post, Pastor Scott says, “The sixteenth century reformation was responsible for restoring the principle of Sola Scriptura to the church.” Obviously, in order to restore something, that thing had to be present at an earlier time. Unfortunately, Pastor Scott does not offer any evidence that the principle of Sola Scriptura was present in the early Church. In fact, the early Church witnesses to the Catholic teaching that scripture and tradition both comprise the Word of God, which the bishops serve through their apostolic ministry.
Here are a few quotes from the early Church which demonstrate this. As an aside, Catholics do not cite the early fathers of the Church to be infallible witnesses to arbitrary dogmas. They are not infallible. What their writings provide is merely evidence that a belief existed in the past. They act as a bridge between us and the apostolic age. For the purposes of this debate, we are using their writings to show that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura did not exist in the early Church, but was introduced by Christian men much later on. Do not take our word for it. We encourage every reader to research the teachings of the Church Fathers for themselves. All emphases are our own:
Irenaeus, who wrote in the second century:
“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors to our own times—men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about.
“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles.
“With this church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree—that is, all the faithful in the whole world—and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (Against Heresies., 3:3:1–2).
Here is Clement of Alexandria who wrote in the early third century:
Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from loss the blessed tradition” (Miscellanies 1:1 [A.D. 208])
Here is a quote from Origen, who Mark Driscoll has quoted in some of his writings:
“Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition” (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]).
The great theological giant Athanasius, who wrote in the 4th century and is responsible for the stamping out of the Arian Heresy (which he did through appeals to tradition and philosophy, rather than use of the Bible Alone) had this to say on the subject:
“But you are blessed, who by faith are in the Church, dwell upon the foundations of the faith, and have full satisfaction, even the highest degree of faith which remains among you unshaken. For it has come down to you from apostolic tradition, and frequently accursed envy has wished to unsettle it, but has not been able” (Festal Letters., 29).
Basil the Great, one of the Eastern Fathers of the Church writes forcefully on the subject.
“Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety, both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce [Christian] message to a mere term” (The Holy Spirit 27:66 [A.D. 375]).
Protestants don’t actually believe in the Doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
This claim might surprise some people, but Mark Driscoll and Pastor Scott Thomas do not actually believe in their own doctrine of Sola Scriptura. No protestant really does. In word, Mark Driscoll and Pastor Scott condemn a notion that there is a need for an infallible authority to interpret the scriptures. In practice, however, Mark Driscoll acts as though he is that same infallible authority. Mars Hill Church practices Church discipline. It says so in their member covenant. That means that if one of their members in an office of authority preaches heresy of some kind, they can be removed from their position. Admittedly, I’m not familiar with the exact process by which Mars Hill carries this out, however the fact that they do it at all is an implicit recognition that the Bible Alone is not our highest authority. By carrying out Church discipline and punishing members who hold different interpretations of the Bible, Mars Hill Church implicitly admits that there is at least one authority that is as high if not higher than the Bible. For if the Bible is the highest – and sole – authority, who could be its judge?
The danger of Sola Scriptura is not that it removes the ability of authority to interpret the scripture. Rather, it is dangerous because it amounts to anyone and everyone being an authoritative interpreter of the scriptures. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, introduced less than 500 years ago by a Catholic Priest in revolt against the Catholic Church, has yielded thousands of divisions and denominations today. Rather than adhering to beliefs held by Christians since the time of Jesus, thousands have been misled often clinging to the most charismatic preacher available rather than the preacher with authority to preach Christian Doctrine. Each week, more and more Christians splinter off to form their own Bible-alone Churches. Though God is the author of the Bible, he is not the author of such confusion. For that reason, Sola Scriptura is false. Catholics agree with Pastor Scott. “The church is poisoned with false teaching and unless an authority exists, every wacky doctrine is fair game.” That is why we need an authentic, living interpreter (the magisterium) to interpret the living word (Scripture and Tradition). Without it, wacky doctrines like Sola Scriptura will continue to poison the Church.
Sola Scriptura is a false doctrine. It is not biblical, and there is no record that anyone in the Church believed it before Martin Luther invented it in the 16th century. If you are a protestant reading this and are finding your faith challenged, do not be afraid and do not worry. Many faith filled Christians like you have faced the same difficulties, and many of them have found Truth in the last place they expected: The home where Christ himself dwells. It is the Church that God used to determine the list of books in the Bible. It is the Church that God used to hand the scriptures on from generation to generation, long before the printing press and modern literacy rates. Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he established one Church to teach one set of doctrines. He did not do this during our lifetime, or Martin Luther’s time, but during his own lifetime. There is only one Church that can trace itself and its teachings all the way back to Christ. It is the Roman Catholic Church. Christ and his bride, the Church, welcome all with open arms.
*For more on the topic of the Canon and the question, “By what criterion do we know which texts comprise the Bible?” I encourage you to read this wonderful article at Called to Communion. It is quite long but does a thorough job of explaining the problem and how the modern Chistian should resolve the conflict. There are also over 200 comments from a variety of theological perspectives that those curious will most likely find very interesting.