Sola Scriptura?


This is a brief recapitulation of why we Catholics reject the erroneous Protestant doctrines of "Sola Scriptura" and "private judgment or interpretation."

I. First, I'll quote some extracts about "Sola Scriptura" from an article written by James Akin. The article is "A triumph and a tragedy," THIS ROCK (April 1995), pages 17 and 18. Mr. Akin was a former minister of the Presbyterian Church in America before he converted to the Catholic Church.

"The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura also began to trouble me as I wondered how it is that we can know for certain which books belong in the Bible. Certain books of the New Testament, such as the synoptic gospels, we can show to be reliable historical accounts of Jesus' life, but there were a number of New Testament books (e.g., Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation) whose authorship and canonical status were debated in the early Church. Eventually the Church decided in their favor and included them in the canon of inspired books, but I saw that I, a person two thousand years removed from their writing, had no possibility of proving these works were genuinely apostolic. I simply had to take the Church's word on it.

"This meant that for one very foundational doctrine--the doctrine of what Scripture is--I had to trust the Church since there was no way to show from within Scripture itself exactly what the books of the Bible should be. But I realized that by looking to the Church as an authentic and reliable witness to the canon, I was violating the principle of sola scriptura. The "Bible only" theory turned out to be self-refuting, since it cannot tell us which books belong in the Bible and which don't! What was more, my studies in Church history showed that the canon of the Bible was not finally fixed until about three hundred years after the last apostle died. If I was going to claim that the Church had done it's job and picked exactly the right books for the Bible, this meant that the Church had made an infallible decision three hundred years after the apostolic age, a realization which made it believable that the Church could make even later infallible decisions, and that the Church could make such decisions even today."

II. Second, as for "private judgment," this is what the late Fr. Raymond E. Brown wrote about that error on page 31 of his AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT (Anchor/Doubleday: 1997):

"Two proposed criteria for what Scripture teaches authoritatively reflect divisions in Western Christianity since the Reformation. One is that the Spirit guides the individual reader of the Bible to religious and theological truth, i.e., "private interpretation" of the Bible. The other is that the Spirit supplies guidance through church teaching. Each criterion has difficulties. Private interpretation is logically paralyzed when two who claim to have the Spirit disagree. Not every Spirit is from God (1 John 4:1-3), but how does one know which spirit is? Moreover, at least in the mainline churches which emerged from the Reformation, church tradition of various kinds (e.g., creeds, confessions of faith) has had a role, explicit or implicit, in guiding private interpretation."

III. Third, as one example from ancient times of the Catholic Church officially deciding which books belong in the Bible, I'll quote the second part of the DECREE of Pope Damasus I (r. 366-384). The document was a decree of the Council of Rome which met under Damasus' presidency in AD 382.

The text of the DECREE as re the Scriptures was copied from page 406 of Volume 1 of THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, edited/translated by William A. Jurgens (Collegevlle, The Liturgical Press: 1970).

"[2] It is likewise decreed: Now, indeed, we must treat of the divine Scriptures: what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she must shun. The list of the Old Testament begins: Genesis, one book; Exodus, one book; Leviticus, one book; Numbers, one book; Deuteronomy, one book; Jesus Nave [Joshua], one book; of Judges, one book; Ruth, one book; of Kings, four books; Paralipomenon, two books; One Hundred and Fifty Psalms, one book; of Solomon, three books: Proverbs, one book; Ecclesiastes, one book; Canticle of Canticles; one book; likewise, Wisdom, one book; Ecclesiasticus [Sirach], one book. Likewise, the list of the Prophets: Isaias, one book; Jeremias [Baruch was often considered part of Jeremiah], one book, along with Cinoth, that is, his Lamentations; Ezechiel, one book; Daniel, one book; Osee, one book; Amos, one book; Micheas, one book; Joel, one book; Abdias, one book; Jonas, one book; Nahum, one book; Habacuc, one book; Sophonias, one book; Aggeus, one book; Zacharias, one book; Malachias, one book. Likewise, the list of histories: Job, one book; Tobias, one book; Esdras, two books; Esther, one book; Judith, one book; of Maccabees, two books.

"Likewise, the list of the Scriptures of the New and Eternal Testament, which the holy and Catholic Church receives: of the Gospels, one book according to Matthew, one book according to Mark, one book according to Luke, one book according to John. The Epistles of the Apostle Paul, fourteen in number: one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Ephesians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Galatians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, one to Philemon, one to the Hebrews. Likewise, one book of the Apocalypse of John. And the Acts of the Apostles, one book. Likewise, the canonical Epistles, seven in number: of the Apostle Peter, two Epistles; of the Apostle James, one Epistle; of the Apostle John, one Epistle; of the other John, a Presbyter, two Epistles; of the Apostle Jude the Zealot, one Epistle. Thus concludes the canon of the New Testament."

Alert readers should note how this list includes as fully canonical the Deuterocanonical books which the founders of Protestantism erroneously purged from their editions of the Bible after 1517. Why should these books be rejected so late if Holy Church accepted and still accepts the Deuterocanonical books? It's one of the many and unresolvable weaknesses of "sola scriptura" that the Prots. cannot determine which books belong in the Canon using that theory.

Last, I would like to pose two questions:

1. Assuming the Bible is our sole "base of authority," how do we KNOW we are interpreting the Scriptures correctly?

2. WHERE was true Christianity before 1517 ?

Sean M. Brooks

SeanMBrook@aol.com


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