Stephen Beale has been a freelance writer and journalist for over 10 years, reporting on presidential politics, government corruption, and other public affairs. He also writes frequently about Church history, spirituality, and theology. He holds an undergraduate from Brown University in classics and history. He currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island.
The Protestant Reformation broke out, in theory, out of a concern for the authority of Scripture. But the resulting doctrine of sola Scriptura—the Bible is the only authority—is actually self-defeating.
The concept of sola Scriptura is pretty straightforward: the Bible should be the sole authority in the lives of Christians. That sola drives a wedge between Protestants and Catholics. It expresses the Protestant impulse to have direct access to Scripture, without the interference of pesky popes, priests, councils and tradition.
For Catholics, of course, Scripture and Church authorities are not at odds with each other. The teaching of popes, the creeds and statements of ecumenical councils, and other authorities of the Church clarify and confirm the meaning of Scripture for us. They enrich and enable rather than obstruct our encounter with Scripture.
In its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council made this clear. Scripture and tradition do not stand side by side as competing sources of authority. They are rather one harmonious whole. Or, in its words, “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.”
Thus, sola Scriptura is an attempt to solve a problem where, from the Catholic perspective, none exists.
But sola Scriptura fails to live up to its own standard—as one Catholic scholar helped me to see in a recent interview I did with him for the Register’s story on the Reformation’s anniversary. Francis Beckwith is a Catholic philosopher who reverted back to the faith after a time as an evangelical, including a stint as the head of the Evangelical Theological Society. Few Catholics are as qualified as he is to talk about the inner workings of evangelical Protestantism. (It is evangelicals who today are most attached to the principle of sola Scriptura. Thus is to them we must turn to see how it plays out in practice.)
The inherent problem with sola Scriptura, Beckwith pointed out, is that individuals are free to interpret the Bible on their own. This is a common Catholic criticism. But Beckwith’s insight is that this actually undermines the authority of Scripture. This is illustrated in what is apparently is a popular genre of book in the evangelicalism—books that offer four or five views on a controversial topic, such as sex, divorce, birth control, or the nature of Church that are all supposedly consistent with the Bible. (Here, here, and here are some examples I found of these books.)
Thus, the Bible is cited as an authority for any number of opposing views. Evangelicals can then have their cake and eat it too—they can claim to be upholding biblical authority, while dissenting on essential matters.
But if the Bible basically becomes a theological Rorschach test—one can look at it and see whatever doctrine one wants—how effective is it as an authority? The reality is, not very. Rules are effective only to the extent that they can be enforced and strictly interpreted. Without enforcement and authoritative interpretation, rules lose their own authority.
And that’s what’s happened with those who have followed sola Scriptura. It’s a free-for-all. Whole Protestant denominations have abandoned traditional views on divorce, ordination and birth control. And even among more conservative evangelicals, there is still a tremendous diversity when it comes to these important issues.
The question really comes down to how evangelical Protestants define “authority.” In its first entry, Merriam-Webster defines it as the “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.” Merriam-Webster gives the examples of military commanders or government officials. In this sense, we could define “authority” as something that binds the individual.
Now, in all fairness, Merriam-Webster does also recognize in its fourth entry that “authority” could refer to a book as an authority. But the first example it provides is the Bible! So that doesn’t help us here. The next example is a court document which supports the point being made here: court documents have law enforcement officials available to make sure their directives are carried out—not to mention the interpretive role of the court itself.
The truth is that nothing is truly authoritative without an accompanying enforcement and interpretive mechanism. Even the lexicographical authority I am citing here—the Merriam-Webster dictionary—does not exist as a book in isolation, but instead is the product of a publishing company with a team of editors who decide what goes in it.
Without accompanying authoritative enforcement and interpretation, the Bible loses its power as an authority. Tragically, in the context of Protestantism, rather than being an authority, the Bible has instead become license for individuals to practice whatever religion they want. “It’s the perfect kind of faith for modern man: a religious menu with all the benefits of obedience without the cross,” Beckwith told me.
Rather than shore up the authority of Scripture, sola Scriptura destroys it. Unfortunately, five hundred years of Protestantism have made that all too clear.