Although I am a so-called “Cradle Catholic”, my wife is a convert. She comes from a Church of Christ background. My mother was a Southern Baptist before converting to Catholicism just a few months before I was born. So I do have an appreciation for our separated brethren. They are Christians the same as Catholics. We usually fight side-by-side for the same causes. We share many of the same beliefs. Still, no one can ignore the issues that separate Catholics and Protestants.
The main issue that separates us is authority. For Catholics the authority is the Church, and the Church has a hierarchical structure. This, in the Catholic view, is how Christ inteneded it. For Protestants, however, the authority lies squarely (that is, solely) with Scripture. In Latin this belief is referred to as sola scriptura. That is, Scripture alone. For Protestants, Scripture alone is the authority on faith, morals, and worship.
In refutation of sola scriptura, many would use Scripture to disprove it. The logic behind this is obvious. But I want to use a different tactic. There have been many, many books written using Scripture to disprove sola scriptura. I want to take a historical look.
Most people do not really understand the history behind the New Testament. Particularly in Protestant circles there is a tendency to assume that Jesus ascended into heaven, and then: BAM! There was the New Testament. Such a view is historically naive. In fact, the New Testament was centuries in the making.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s not forget that sola scriptura would bind the Church to Scripture for all of its teachings. This presumes that Scripture preceded the Church. In fact, however, the Church preceded Scripture. It is true that the Old Testament existed before Christianity; but Protestants are primarily (and sometimes exclusively) referring to the New Testament when they talk of sola scriptura. When it comes to the New Testament, the Church was first. Not individual churches (called congregations or parishes), but the Church Universal. It is the Church Universal that precedes Scripture, and it is the Church Universal to whom Christ promises His protection (see Mt. 16).
Now I ask: “If the Church Universal precedes the New Testament, then how can the Church be bound solely to Scripture for its authority?”
This would just not make sense. I am not bound to my children for my authority. Neither was God the Father bound to God the Son for His authority. What precedes can not be bound to what follows for its authority. It just does not make sense! So the Church does not depend solely on Scripture for its authority.
As I said before, the New Testament was centuries in the making. Jesus never gave a command to His apostles to write anything down. In the beginning, the teachings of Christ were passed on orally. Some scholars have said that the earliest gospel was written about AD 30. As Karl Keating discusses in his book What Catholics Really Believe, modern scholarship has actually proven that the earliest gospel was possibly written about ten years after Christ’s Ascension. So the Church existed for about ten years before any New Testament documents were even written!
To make matters even more complicated for Protestants, early Christians could not agree on which books the New Testament should be composed of! The earliest extant copy of the New Testament actually consists of different books than we have in our New Testament. In the Early Church Christians living in different parts of the world had different books in their New Testament. Such great scholars as Origen and St. Jerome could not agree on which books should be in the New Testament!
The issue that finally forced the Church to unify the New Testament for all Christians was Arianism. For those who do not know, Arius was a priest who taught Jesus was not divine. Arius said that Jesus was simply a very good person. Arius garnered a lot of support for his views, especially in the Middle East. In fact, until the Protestant Revolt, Arianism was the largest heresy the Church had seen. To combat Arianism the Church needed to be unified in everything. This included Scripture.
In AD 381 a council was called in Rome which dealt with the NEw Testament Canon. It was the first council to do so. The list of books was identical to our New Testament today. The Council of Carthage III (AD 397) was the last to really deal with the New Testament Canon. Its list was also identical to our New Testament.
The argument is often made that St. Jerome did not agree with the Church’s decision on the books of the New Tetsament. That is true, but he also expressed his obedience to the Church’s decision. St. Jerome understood that the Church was guranteed the protection of the Holy Spirit when dealing with matters of faith and morals. He, personally, had no such guarantee. So Jerome submitted to the wisdom of the Church. In his Confessions, St. Augustine says that he would not believe in the Scripture at all, if not for the Church.
If what I have said above does not convince you sola scriptura is wrong, then allow me just one more point. The New Testament was only finalized about 400 years after the Church began. If Scripture is the sole authority on faith, worship, and morals, then the Church did not really exist until 400 years after Christ! That means the apostles can not really be considered Christians. So not only is sola scriptura not scriptural, but it doesn’t make sense from a historical standpoint!
Peace in Christ,
David Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity