Contra Anti-Sola Scriptura Arguments I

I am going to take a break from the text critical scene in order to start a series on dealing with anti-Sola Scriptura arguments. As someone who is very much interested in specific areas of meaning in language [generative syntax, semantics, and pragmatics], I have been very interested in applying these areas to the study of Sola Scriptura.

There are many groups out there that deny Sola Scriptura. The two groups with whom I have had the most contact are the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and hence, my discussion will be geared towards those particular churches. Now, not all of them are the same. For example, I have ran into very mystical Greek Orthodox who don’t argue against Sola Scriptura on rational grounds. I have also ran into very liberal Roman Catholics [such as father Joseph Fitzmayer, and his work on Aramaic] who don’t even believe in inerrancy, and some people who said they were Roman Catholic but gave a very evangelical view of scripture and salvation. Hence, I realize that some qualification is in order here. What I am dealing with is traditional denials of Sola Scriptura from traditionalist Roman Catholics, and more westernized Greek Orthodox.

The first argument I would like to deal with is the argument from doctrinal chaos. There are many variations to this argument. Most will cite a [usually grossly over inflated] statistic about how many different denominations that, allegedly, Sola Scriptura has produced. Of course, the problem with this argument right off the bat is that it assumes that it is Sola Scriptura that has produced these differences in denomination. Unless one believes that there are many meanings to the text of scripture which can be contradictory, this argument seems to not have much bite.

However, that is not really what is meant by this argument. The argument itself is more epistemic in character. The issue is usually not “Is there more than one correct interpretation?” but “How does one know the correct interpretation of a given passage?” How does one tell which [if any] two guys in a Bible study, who have differing interpretations, are correct in their interpretation of scripture?

A couple of things must be said at this point. First of all, no one who believes in Sola Scriptura believes that everyone is equally competent to interpret scripture. Peter himself speaks to this issue:

2 Peter 3:15-16 just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Notice how people speak of those who are “untaught” and “unstable” twist the scriptures to their own distruction. That is why I would suggest that, for a person to be involved in exegetical ministry, they must be taught and stable. I cannot tell you how many interpretations this knocks off right away. Many denominations and cults were created by anti-intellectual lone rangers who never had proper training in exegesis in the first place, and go off the deep end with wild-eyed, fanciful theories. Since they are “untaught” and “unstable” they go about twisting the scriptures to their own distruction.

However, the denier of Sola Scriptura will argue, “Yes, but even amongst compitent interpreters there are differences of opinion.” However, remember, the issue is not whether there are differing interpretations; the issue is the knowledge of which interpretation is correct. Here is where I think the person who denies Sola Scriptura is backing himself into a corner that he will be unable to escape. The problem at this point is with the objectivity of language. If we take away “the church” we must ask the question, “Are their factors outside of the interpreter himself that control meaning in language?” The answer is a very simple “yes.” The reason is that there are factors that control how an author, himself, can use his language. I am reminded of a famous scene from the work Through the Looking Glass. It will get to the heart of what I am trying to say:

There’s glory for you!’

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

From the online edition

The reason why Humpty Dumpty is wrong is because you will always have interaction between author and audience within a linguistic community. There are also semantic features of the language itself which control meaning, as well as even the structure of the passage and the sentence itself. Thus, meaning in language is based upon objective factors, and neither Humpty Dumpty, the Roman Catholic Church, or the Church Councils are able to go against these factors.

This issue, however, now becomes this. Someone who denies Sola Scriptura will now say that we can never know if we have applied these objective standards correctly. It is at this point that I have to ask them if they can know that they are currently applying these standards properly right now as they are reading this. If they answer “no,” then they have just taken a postmodern view of language. The problem is that postmodernism destroys, not only Protestantism, but all groups that claim to have objective truth, including the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. If no one can be certain that they are applying the standards of meaning in language properly, then you also can’t know whether you are applying the standards properly when you listen to the church interpret Papal statements or the teachings of councils. The only response I have gotten to this is that you can ask for clarification from the Church. However, one must ask this simple question in response: If you didn’t understand the initial statement, then what guarantee do you have that you will understand the clarification?

The problem is that, eventually, you are going to have to interpret some form of language, whether it be the scriptures, or whether it be the “infallible” decrees of the church. If you destroy objectivity in language, you destroy the revelation of God altogether.

However, the denier of Sola Scriptura will push further, and try to be specific. He will say, “Then, use this standards and tell us whether or not we should baptize infants.” However, to ask such a question confuses issues.

First of all, the fact that another person is not convinced of another person’s linguistic argumentation does not mean that the person’s argumentation is in question. If the other side cannot deal directly with the argument that is being made, then the argument is not in question, even though the opponents of the argument are unconvinced. To put it simply, persuasion is subjective; proof is objective.

However, what do we do with arguments that have not yet been resolved? Does this mean that, because the argumentation has not been resolved, that we therefore need a magisterium or church councils to tell us what the text means? I would argue that this faulty reasoning. In order for this reasoning to work, one would have to show that no proof one way or the other could *ever* be offered for any interpretation, which would force the denier of Sola Scriptura to omnicient. The problem for the denier of Sola Scriptura at this point is that merely pointing out the fact that there is a question amongst those who hold to Sola Scriptura does you no good if there is an objective means of solving this issue outside of the Church, namely, the objective nature of language. If one applies the exact same standards that the denier of Sola Scriptura is using to interpret the speech that he hears everyday around him to the texts relevant to this issue, then one can come up with the meaning, simply because of the fact that language is objective.

In fact, there is another thorny problem for deniers of Sola Scriptura who use this argument. Not only are there different interpretations of the Bible, but there are different interpetations of texts from other disciplines. I have wandered into the fields of Assyriology and Egyptology in my studies of Hebrew and Northwest Semitics, and I have found that scholars do not all agree on the interpretation of texts like The Epic of Gilgamesh or The Book of the Dead. The problem is that, if one cannot resolve the problems in Biblical interpretation by using the principles of language, then neither can you resolve the problems in these texts as well, and hence, you have just thrown the fields of Egyptology and Assyriology under the bus.

Are there texts in the Bible that are ambiguious? Yes there are, and Sola Scriptura does not mean that one will not have to put hard work and study into a text in order to understand it. It simply means that, by putting hard work and study into applying the proper rules of exegesis to a text, one can come up with the meaning of the text.

However, let us assume that this is not the case, and there are some passages of which we are unsure of their meaning. Asside from the fact that there are objective means outside of the Catholic magisterium or the councils of the church to determine the meaning of those texts, we must also consider the fruits of labor before God. I have gotten interested in used book companies. I can by books for much cheaper than on, and they are usually in very good condition. However, let us say that we buy a copy of War and Peace, and when we get it, we find that two of the pages are damaged such that the top sentence of one page, the the bottom sentence of another page are completely missing. Now, with two pages gone, are we seriously suggesting that we cannot understand the plotline of War and Peace? Such a suggestion is quite simply preposterous.

The reason is because, as Wittgenstein said, language exists in certain “language games.” The Bible provides us with a huge amount of material, and presents us with a particular conception of reality such that, even if we don’t know the meaning of a few passages, the language game of the scriptures is still going to be quite clear. Hence, while the specific meaning of a few texts may be in question, there are a mountain of other texts to use in order to establish the language game of the Bible. In fact, as that is established, we can then use this information to solve other issues in interpretation of the scriptures.

However, the big problem here is the objectivity of language. It provides us with a standard outside of the Church through which we can discover the meaning of a text. Hence, an infallible church or infallible councils are not needed. In fact, the denier of Sola Scriptura knows that this is the case, because he is using language and interpreting language to even make this argument. Thus, the only consistent denier of Sola Scriptura who believes this argument is the denier of Sola Scriptura who doesn’t argue against Sola Scriptura. Why? Because, according to them, there are no objective means to argue, since we need a magisterium or councils to interpret one another’s statements.

The only option left is to simply be arbitrary, and say that you believe that it is only the scriptures whose language does not have objective meaning. However, once you do this, I now have a right to ask why you are being arbitrary. I would say that this argument actually brings out the fact that the ideas presented within the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church are actually gnostic in character. The gnostics believed that you could not understand the scriptures without their “secret knowledge.” We have much the same things here. According to the denier of Sola Scriptura, without the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox Church’s “secret knowledge,” you cannot interpret the scriptures properly.


2 Responses to “Contra Anti-Sola Scriptura Arguments I”

  1. Mark Says:

    “The only response I have gotten to this is that you can ask for clarification from the Church. However, one must ask this simple question in response: If you didn’t understand the initial statement, then what guarantee do you have that you will understand the clarification?”

    One can ask yes/no questions with the regard to the meaning of the initial statement (and ask in a manner which both the questioner and the answerer understand)- this is a substantial form of clarification.

    Also, I think the more interesting objection to Sola Scriptura is the following- what warrant do you have for believing in the correctness of the Church’s decision to regard some books as divinely inspired and rejecting others and regarding those books as not being divinely inspired.

    What are grounds for thinking that the Church actually made the right decision, and thus that we have the right texts. Do you think that we can tell whether a text has the supernatural quality of being divinely inspired by means of textual analysis/comparison, popular approval of persons with no authority in matters of doctrine, mere human reasoning, or something else?

    I think that there is an infallible teaching magisterial authority- Catholic Church. Because they are infallible, their decision about the Canon is innerant. This is a coherent concept, even if it is false (which I can show why it is not).

    I usually get the response that my objection also functions as an objection to the Catholic position. It actually does not, because my objection is only an objection to the lack of grounds for belief in the correctness of the Church’s decision (to regard some books as divinely inspired and reject others- that’s it)- well, a lack of grounds, if you do not believe in an infallible Church teaching authority.

    For example, I would say that the Mormon has grounds for belief in the books of Mormon- because the Mormon tells me that the author claimed that the book was truly divinely inspired- though the grounds are false grounds. That I said I once killed a lion is grounds for believing I have killed a lion, even if it turns out that it is false grounds. So, what I am asking you to provide is grounds for belief in the correctness of the decisions of the Church on the Canon- defending those grounds is a separate, though important, question.


  2. otrmin Says:


    One can ask yes/no questions with the regard to the meaning of the initial statement (and ask in a manner which both the questioner and the answerer understand)- this is a substantial form of clarification.

    The problem is that this is a very simplistic view of langauge. Language is not understood by a “yes” or “no” procedure. Reality is multifacited, and meaning in language depends upon how certain words, phrases, and sentences relate to reality. Hence, you have to be certain that the definition of the terms that you are using in the yes or no question are the same definition for the person to whom you are asking the question. There is no guarantee of this.

    I was actually going to do my next post on the canon argument. The problem with the argument is that it is simply untrue. Christ held people to the authority of the Hebrew scriptures long before there was anyone in Rome who called himself the vicar of Christ. For example, in arguing with the Sadducees, Jesus himself says:

    Matthew 22:31 “But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God:

    He then goes on to quote from the book of Genesis. Jesus expected people to know that this book was scripture. If I were a good Sadducee, at this point, I would just say, “I didn’t know that book was scripture since there hasn’t been any Catholic church yet to tell me.”

    The simple question that needs to be asked is this: How would a Jew living 100 years before the time of Christ know that 1 and 2 Chronicles were scripture?

    Not only that, but the argument is also self-refuting. For example, I have yet to have a Roman Catholic tell me that they know everything there is to know about Roman Catholic tradition. All of the patristic writers, all of the canons and decrees of councils, and all of the Papal decrees make up a mountain of material that no one could even hope to plummet the depths of in a lifetime. Hence, the question is simply this: Do you have inerrant knowledge of all Roman Catholic tradition?

    Not only that, but Rome gives me one canon of the Hebrew Bible, and Eastern Orthodoxy gives me another canon of the Hebrew Bible. Why should I accept Rome’s authority, and not the authority of the bishop of Constantinople? The Mormons say that you are an apostate church, and that the Mormon church is the true church, and hence, I should follow their canon. The Watchtower Society claims the same thing with regards to their literature. When you start down the authority argument, it can be used to prove almost anything.

    Also, there have been many people within the Catholic Church [even saints!] who have rejected your view of the Canon of the Hebrew Bible. The two that pop immediately to mind are Pope Gregory the Great and Cardinal Cajatan [the opponent of Luther]. Cardinal Cajatan said:

    Here we close our commentaries on the historical books of the Old Testament. For the rest (that is, Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees) are counted by St Jerome out of the canonical books, and are placed amongst the Apocrypha, along with Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, as is plain from the Prologus Galeatus. Nor be thou disturbed, like a raw scholar, if thou shouldest find anywhere, either in the sacred councils or the sacred doctors, these books reckoned as canonical. For the words as well of councils as of doctors are to be reduced to the correction of Jerome. Now, according to his judgment, in the epistle to the bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus, these books (and any other like books in the canon of the bible) are not canonical, that is, not in the nature of a rule for confirming matters of faith. Yet, they may be called canonical, that is, in the nature of a rule for the edification of the faithful, as being received and authorised in the canon of the bible for that purpose. By the help of this distinction thou mayest see thy way clearly through that which Augustine says, and what is written in the provincial council of Carthage. [Cardinal Caietan (Jacob Thomas de Vio), Commentary on all the Authentic Historical Books of the Old Tesdtament, In ult. Cap., Esther. Taken from A Disputation on Holy Scripture by William Whitaker (Cambridge: University, 1849), p. 48.]

    Interesting that one of the premier Catholic opponents of Luther did not hold to modern Rome’s view of the canon. Also, Pope Gregory the Great, one of the premier Roman Catholic pontiffs stated:

    With reference to which particular we are not acting irregularly, if from the books, though not Canonical, yet brought out for the edification of the Church, we bring forward testimony. Thus Eleazar in the battle smote and brought down an elephant, but fell under the very beast that he killed (1 Macc. 6.46). [Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1845), Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, Volume II, Parts III and IV, Book XIX.34, p.424.]

    Hence, I figure that I am in good company if I reject the canon of Rome since one of the greatest pontiffs, as well as one of the great opponents of Luther, likewise did so.

    The simple answer to the canon question is that God worked in the New Testament the same way he did in the Hebrew Bible. God condescended to man, such that he was able to lead his people to what he wanted them to have. That is also why it took such a long time for general consensus to develop amongst Christians. Thus, it depended upon God’s ability to condescend, and not upon any alleged infallibility in the Church. It wasn’t flashy, but, then again, God doesn’t always do things with the golden light from the sky.

    God Bless,

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